We Americans have widely divergent attitudes toward the meaning of the holiday season, but there’s one thing that brings just about all of us together right now. This is the time of year when we turn our hearts and thoughts to the less fortunate and dig deep to help out. The streets are clogged with costumed Santas collecting alms, the airwaves are filled with reruns of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Americans are busy writing year-end checks.
It’s a sentiment that packs a real punch. Of some $250 billion donated by Americans to charity each year, fully half is given in the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to the respected Charity Navigator Web site. This is indeed the season for giving.
There are a host of reasons for this seasonal outpouring. For one, the Christmas season is commonly taken to be a time for spiritual reflection, naturally expressed in feelings of charity and selflessness. That impulse is built into the holiday traditions of our various religions, through the ritual of gift giving. Our better nature tells us — and society reminds us — to extend our giving beyond our friends and family by helping the stranger.
The weather does its part, as well; the days have grown short and cold, making the needy appear more unfortunate. Then, too, the calendar year is ending, touching off a rush to pile up tax deductions.
Charitable giving is a distinctly American trait. Charitable donations come to about 2.2% of our Gross Domestic Product. That’s more than double the rate of giving in Great Britain, and more than four times the rate in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries. Our personal generosity is a source of considerable national pride.
Whether all that generosity does the poor any good is another question entirely. For all our personal generosity, the percentage of the population living in poverty in America is 50% higher than in Britain, and more than twice as high as in Germany, Holland, Italy or France, according to the widely respected Luxembourg Income Study. That gap translates, of course, into a host of drearily familiar social gaps, from a shockingly higher infant mortality rate to shorter life expectancy.
It must be noted that in one important respect, America and its European allies are strikingly similar: the ability of our national economies to provide for our needs. When poverty is calculated as a purely economic phenomenon, counting only wages and earnings and leaving out so-called government transfers — welfare, food stamps, income supports and the like — America is actually at the low end of the poverty scale. By that theoretical measure, our poverty rate is 29%, compared with 30% in the Netherlands, 38% in Britain and 39% in France.
It’s after government transfers are figured in that the gap appears. America’s actual poverty rate — as experienced in real life by the poor — is reduced by government transfers from 29% to 18%, while Britain’s poverty rate drops from 38% to 13% and France’s from 39% to 8%, according to the Luxembourg study.
Put differently, America reduces its poverty rate by 38% through government transfers, while Britain reduces its poverty rate by 66% and France by 79%.
(The Luxembourg study’s yardstick for measuring poverty is different from our federal government’s, which calculates a 12.5% poverty rate. The comparative ratio between different countries doesn’t change, however, as long as a measure is applied evenly across all countries. These figures are from the 2001 Luxembourg study, which used 1994 and 1995 government statistics.)
And that, simply put, is the reason that America’s poverty rate is higher than Europe’s. In straightforward terms, America has more poverty because it transfers a much lower percentage of its national income from the rich to the poor than the Europeans do. According to the conservative British newsweekly The Economist, America’s spending on social welfare averages about 18% of our Gross Domestic Product, compared with 28% in Britain and higher still in continental Europe.
Against that shortfall, America’s advantage in charitable giving — about 1% of GDP — is puny. “International differences in social spending vastly outweigh those in private generosity,” The Economist wrote in 2004.
Where does our tax money go instead? Ideologues on both sides suggest that a big part of the difference is in defense spending, which is far higher in America than in Europe. But our entire defense budget is less than twice our charitable giving. It’s a mere fraction of what we don’t spend on welfare. Mostly, our tax dollars stay in our pockets. America’s total tax burden, counting all levels of government, is barely 35% of GDP and dropping, compared with about 45% in Britain.
Conservatives argue that leaving money in people’s pockets fuels greater economic growth, which is the best thing one can do for the poor. There’s some truth in the first part, though less than commonly supposed. The second part is entirely false.
Poverty in America is not a function of our economic system. It’s the direct result of political decisions. We make those decisions every year in Washington when our representatives adopt the federal budget. We flatter ourselves that caring for the poor is something we leave to the voluntary sector, but that’s just another way of saying we don’t care. Government is the concrete expression of the national will. When a nation wants to do something, it acts. When it doesn’t care, it lets individual citizens decide for themselves.
As it happens, this is a national debate in which Jews have a special message to bring. Our tradition teaches that charity is not a matter of personal choice but of societal obligation — not the Roman caritas , “kindness,” but the Hebrew tzedakah , “justice.” We draw our inspiration from biblical laws that require us — require us — to set aside a share for the poor. We might well ask those who advocate less government in the name of religion just what Bible they’re reading.
This holiday season, Americans of every faith who want to show their concern for the poor might consider splitting their gifts. Give half to feed a poor soul, and half to advocates who are working to bring a genuine message of justice to Washington.