May 4, 2003
There are many words to describe New Englanders. "Generous," it would seem, isn't one of them.
A new study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy shows that when it comes to giving charity, taxpayers in the six New England states are some of the stingiest people in America. It isn't a new indictment. In a 1998 survey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were among the five least charitable states in the nation -- despite being among the wealthiest. In 2000, the Urban Institute's "Generosity Index" put Massachusetts dead last, with most of its neighbors clustered nearby. On this page in 1997, I wrote about what were then the latest tax statistics on charitable giving: "When the IRS numbers are ranked by state, New England is invariably at the bottom." At the top, then as now, were Utah, Wyoming, and much of the Deep South.
In its new study, The Chronicle corrected for variations in the cost of living around the country by calculating charitable giving as a percentage of discretionary income -- the income remaining after necessities like housing, taxes, and food are paid for. It may cost more to live in Massachusetts than in Mississippi, but after that difference is taken into account, which state's residents are more generous?
It isn't even close. In only one of the Bay State's 14 counties do taxpayers give more than 6.5 percent of their discretionary income to charity. In only two of Mississippi's 81 counties do they give less. Residents of Lee County, Miss. -- county seat: Tupelo -- donate an average of $9,126 to charity on discretionary income of $61,421. But in Boston and Suffolk County, Mass., where discretionary income is nearly $79,000, the average amount given to charity is only $6,654.
Among the nation's 50 largest cities, Boston (the only one in New England) ranks fifth in income. In charitable giving it ranks 19th. Widen the lens angle, and the results are even uglier. Of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, the three located in New England -- Boston/Worcester/Lawrence, Providence/Fall River, and Hartford -- were ranked, respectively, 48th, 49th, and 50th in the percentage of discretionary income given to charity.
Many Americans give till it hurts. For far too many New Englanders, it apparently hurts to give. Why?
One part of the answer is that charity begins with religion, and New England is no longer very religious. To be sure, it isn't necessary to go to church, read the Bible, or believe in God to give generously and selflessly to charity. But the data speak for themselves. Americans who live where the influence of religion is strong -- in heavily Mormon Utah, for example, or the Southern Bible Belt, or Brooklyn -- tend to share much more of their wealth with others. Where the culture is more secular and the churches command less respect, charitable giving dries up.
New England wasn't always so miserly. There was a time when people in this part of the country understood instinctively that they had an obligation -- a personal obligation -- to help the unfortunate and support good works. The way to demonstrate compassion, the men and women of New England once knew, was to dig into their own pockets and give of their own time -- to love their neighbors as themselves, especially those who were in trouble or in need.
It had been that way from the very start. On board the Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop urged his flock of pioneers to make the new settlement they were coming to build -- the Massachusetts Bay Colony -- a "model of Christian charity." That meant, he said in a famous sermon, that "we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others' necessities." The Puritans and their descendants took that exhortation to heart, and for generations New England was renowned for its philanthropic institutions and humanitarian spirit.
Today, by contrast, this part of the country -- and Massachusetts in particular -- is far better known for its liberal politics and big-government activism. And it is probably no coincidence that volunteerism and charity have declined as the public sector has swelled.
After all, if it's the government's job to take care of the hungry, why give money to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? If it's up to the state to cure every social ill, who needs good Samaritans or private philanthropy? By taking responsibility "for the supply of others' necessities," government accustoms ordinary citizens to the idea that their charity and help are unnecessary. Perhaps it is political culture as much as religious conviction that explains why Mississippi gives and Massachusetts doesn't.
"We shall be as a city upon a hill," Governor Winthrop warned. "The eyes of all people are upon us." What do those eyes see in New England today? Self-righteous cheapskates who regularly proclaim their compassion, but rarely put their money where their mouth is.