WASHINGTON – When Jody Richards saw a homeless man begging outside a downtown McDonald’s recently, he bought the man a cheeseburger. There’s nothing unusual about that, except that Richards is homeless, too, and the 99-cent cheeseburger was an outsized chunk of the $9.50 he’d earned that day from panhandling.
The generosity of poor people isn’t so much rare as rarely noticed, however. In fact, America’s poor donate more, in percentage terms, than higher-income groups do, surveys of charitable giving show. What’s more, their generosity declines less in hard times than the generosity of richer givers does.
“The lowest-income fifth (of the population) always give at more than their capacity,” said Virginia Hodgkinson, former vice president for research at Independent Sector, a Washington-based association of major nonprofit agencies. “The next two-fifths give at capacity, and those above that are capable of giving two or three times more than they give.”
Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest survey of consumer expenditure found that the poorest fifth of America’s households contributed an average of 4.3 percent of their incomes to charitable organizations in 2007. The richest fifth gave at less than half that rate, 2.1 percent.
The figures probably undercount remittances by legal and illegal immigrants to family and friends back home, a multibillion-dollar outlay to which the poor contribute disproportionally.
None of the middle fifths of America’s households, in contrast, gave away as much as 3 percent of their incomes.
“As a rule, people who have money don’t know people in need,” said Tanya Davis, 40, a laid-off security guard and single mother.
Certainly, better-off people aren’t hit up by friends and kin as often as Davis said she was, having earned a reputation for generosity while she was working.
Now getting by on $110 a week in unemployment insurance and $314 a month in welfare, Davis still fields two or three appeals a week, she said, and lays out $5 or $10 weekly.
To explain her giving, Davis offered the two reasons most commonly heard in three days of conversations with low-income donors:
“I believe that the more I give, the more I receive, and that God loves a cheerful giver,” Davis said. “Plus I’ve been in their position, and someday I might be again.”
Herbert Smith, 31, a Seventh-day Adventist who said he tithed his $1,010 monthly disability check – giving away 10 percent of it – thought that poor people give more because, in some ways, they worry less about their money.
“We’re not scared of poverty the way rich people are,” he said. “We know how to get the lights back on when we can’t pay the electric bill.”
In terms of income, the poorest fifth seem unlikely benefactors. Their pretax household incomes averaged $10,531 in 2007, according to the BLS survey, compared with $158,388 for the top fifth.
In addition, its members are the least educated fifth of the U.S. population, the oldest, the most religious and the likeliest to rent their homes, according to demographers. They’re also the most likely fifth to be on welfare, to drive used cars or rely on public transportation, to be students, minorities, women and recent immigrants.
However, many of these characteristics predict generosity. Women are more generous than men, studies have shown. Older people give more than younger donors with equal incomes. The working poor, disproportionate numbers of which are recent immigrants, are America’s most generous group, according to Arthur Brooks, the author of the book “Who Really Cares,” an analysis of U.S. generosity.
Faith probably matters most, said Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington policy-research organization. That’s partly because above-average numbers of poor people go to church, and those who attend church give more money than non-attenders to secular and religious charities, Brooks found.
Moreover, disproportionate numbers of poor people belong to congregations that tithe.
Less-religious givers such as Emel Sweeney, 73, a retired bookkeeper, say that giving lights up their lives.
“Have you ever looked into the face of someone you’re being generous to?” Sweeney asked with the trace of a Jamaican lilt.
What makes poor people’s generosity more impressive is that their giving generally isn’t tax-deductible, because they don’t earn enough to justify itemizing their charitable tax deductions. In effect, giving a dollar to charity costs poor people a dollar while it costs deduction itemizers 65 cents.
In addition, measures of generosity typically exclude informal giving, such as that of Davis’ late mother, Helen Coleman. Coleman, a Baltimore hotel housekeeper, provided child care, beds and meals for many of her eight children and 32 grandchildren, Davis said.
Federal surveys don’t ask about remittances specifically, so it’s hard to know how much the poorest fifth sends back home. Remittances from U.S. immigrants totaled more than $100 billion in 2007, according to Manuel Orozco, a senior researcher at the Washington policy institute Inter-American Dialogue, who specializes in remittances.
By comparison, individual giving to tax-deductible U.S. charities totaled about $220 billion in 2007.
Much of the money remitted comes from struggling U.S. immigrants such as Zenaida Araviza, 42, a Macy’s cosmetics clerk and single mother in suburban Arlington, Va.
Araviza, who earns $1,300 a month, goes carless, cable-less and cell phone-less in order to send an aunt in the Philippines $200 a month to care for Araviza’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s.
“What can I do?” asked Araviza. “It’s my responsibility.”