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This campaign season, we hear a lot about wealthy people making big donations to political campaigns. But when it comes to donating to charity, the wealthy are being outdone by people who have less money. It turns out lower income people tend to donate a much bigger share of their incomes to charity than wealthier people do. And those who are well-off are more generous when they live among those who are not so rich. This is all in a study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
NPR's Pam Fessler has more.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The Fairlawn and Anacostia neighborhoods in Southeast Washington D.C., are among the city's poorest. Incomes are low. Unemployment is high. Many here turn to charity to get by.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. How can I help you?
FESSLER: Dozens of people fill the lobby of a nonprofit called Bread for the City. Some are in wheelchairs, others have children in tow. They need help with housing, health care, legal issues. Several elderly clients line up for free food.
SHARLENE BLOUNT: Alright, you get two vegetables. You got string beans, corn, tomatoes in a can, and then we have fresh tomatoes.
FESSLER: Food coordinator Sharlene Blount helps one man fill a paper bag.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: String beans and corn in a can.
BLOUNT: Alrighty. Alrighty. Now you get two meats...
FESSLER: It might surprise you, but in this neighborhood where the need is so great, charitable giving is relatively high. People here give away almost 19 percent of the money they have left over after paying taxes and living expenses. That's a giving rate four times the national average. It's based on the Chronicle of Philanthropy's analysis of median household donations in every zip code of the country. Bread for the City's development director, Kristin Valentine, says even their clients give when they can.
KRISTIN VALENTINE: They see, every day, more need than probably the average person.
FESSLER: And the Chronicle found a similar pattern across the nation. Households with incomes of 50 to $75,000 donate on average about eight percent of their discretionary income. That's almost twice as much with those with incomes of $200,000 or more. Peter Panepento, of the Chronicle, says religious giving, which makes up the bulk of U.S. donations, is a big factor.
PETER PANEPENTO: So states like Utah and Alabama and Mississippi all end up very high on our list. And states where it has more of a secular mindset, particularly in New England and all along the coast, tended to show up lower on the list.
FESSLER: He says this also explains some of the differences among income groups, because lower-income donors tend to give a lot of their charitable dollars to churches. But there's something else going on here as well.
CHERYL CURTIS: Now that I have more, I want to give to organizations that provide just basic food for people.
FESSLER: Cheryl Curtis and her husband are among the few upper-income families who live in the same ZIP code where Bread for the City is located. They're both attorneys, and are also among the charity's most generous donors. Last year, they gave $1,000. For Curtis, it's personal.
CURTIS: I grew up very poor, on welfare and food stamps. And so as a kid, I know what it's like to not have food every day of the month because the check comes at one time, and it never lasts the entire month.
FESSLER: It turns out that giving by high-income residents in this area is much higher than in D.C.'s richest neighborhoods. The Chronicle found that it's not just here, the trend is the same across the country. High-income people who live in economically diverse areas give more than high-income who live in wealthier areas. Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the UC Berkeley, says that's consistent with what he's found in years of research on income and giving.
PAUL PIFF: The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become.
FESSLER: He says it's not that rich people aren't generous, they're just isolated. They don't see a lot of poor people in their daily lives.
PIFF: Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there, is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see.
FESSLER: So what does this mean for charities? Bread for the City's Kristin Valentine says the big bucks are still in the wealthiest neighborhoods. The key is to get those who live there more attuned to those in need. That means having nonprofit clients tell their stories more often, and providing more volunteer opportunities, so people can see the need firsthand. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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