Are Rich Americans Expressing Their Views on Ed Reform Via Charity?

Because substantial charitable gifts almost always create a splash in the media and elsewhere, the generosity of the monied class in America is no stranger to praise. Yet according to Ken Stern, writing for The Atlantic, when it comes to percentages, people with lower incomes are actually more than twice as generous as people of means.

Those from the top 20% of America’s income distribution scale gave on average about 1.3% of their income to charity in 2011. Meanwhile, those from the bottom fifth gave 3.2% of their income over the same period.

This kind of generosity by those with less is even more puzzling in light of the fact that since they don’t typically itemize their deductions on their returns, they do not get to use those donations as tax relief.

But why? Lower-income Americans are presumably no more intrinsically generous (or “prosocial,” as the sociologists say) than anyone else. However, some experts have speculated that the wealthy may be less generous—that the personal drive to accumulate wealth may be inconsistent with the idea of communal support. Last year, Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, published research that correlated wealth with an increase in unethical behavior: “While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff later told New York magazine, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people.” They are, he continued, “more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

But that doesn’t explain everything. Even when their means were artificially limited in an experiment, participants with lower incomes were more generous than those who were much more financially secure when no additional motivation was applied. After viewing a video which illustrated the plight of poor children, though, both groups responded with equal generosity.

The difference in levels of generosity isn’t the only puzzle when it comes to charitable giving. Poor and rich are also far apart when it comes to the targets of their largesse. While the poor give to social service organizations, including religious ones, the rich funnel a lot of their gifts towards education – but mainly to higher education rather than K-12.

Alexander Russo on Scholastic’s This Week in Education Blog looks even deeper and wonders what those patterns say about the views rich people hold on the education system in the country – specifically, their views on the ongoing effort to reform education.

A secondary question — not addressed in the Atlantic article but on my mind — has to do with the notable absence of wealthy donors who choose to fund programs supported by reform critics.  There are rich liberals all around — fatcat Democrats and do-gooders who do their best to limit fracking and get Elizabeth Warren elected. But those who are giving to education — Broad, Zuckerberg, Jobs — aren’t giving to reform critics, at least not so far as I know. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s my impression that wealthy liberals have in recent years either ignored or abandoned the approaches and efforts espoused by reform critics. That wealthy liberals would do so — fund reform efforts rather than the approaches espoused by reform critics — is either very sad, or it tells you something about the level of frustration and impatience with the ideas and programs reform critics espouse.