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Politicians’ Failures of Generosity

In 1984, I worked for a short time as a Greenpeace canvasser in Washington, DC. Walking door to door to gain signatures on petitions and dollars for Greenpeace, I grew to dread the nights that I was sent to the wealthy suburbs. While I was a good canvasser, often netting double or triple quota in an evening, those particular neighborhoods were a desert for a Greenpeace canvasser. When someone did give, it was usually a reasonably large check, but for every householder who welcomed me in, nine others quickly shut the door in my face.

My favorite canvassing neighborhood was Mount Pleasant, at the time a working and middle class DC enclave just north of the funky Adams Morgan area. Most welcomed me into their homes and donated something, even if only two bucks or a $10 check. At least one resident, a postal clerk, asked me to cash his check in a week once his own paycheck cleared. If they couldn’t give, the people I met in Mount Pleasant (aptly named) were always polite and kind.

I was in my early twenties and thought that my brief canvassing experience somehow made me knowledgeable about class and generosity, and so I quickly jumped to conclusions. The rich were stingy, I thought, and the middle class was philanthropic. I didn’t consider whether the wealthy suburbanites who closed their doors on me gave generously elsewhere or simply didn’t like the work of Greenpeace. I didn’t think about how inundated with requests for money they must have been or how tired of being pestered. Only later in life did I come to also dislike the endless dinnertime interruptions from fundraising calls in my own home.

My memories of those canvassing days (and my rash judgments) resurfaced during this past week as Mitt Romney’s tax returns became the center of media attention, and charitable donations suddenly became a sort of litmus test for politicians. And I was shocked by the lack of generosity displayed in those returns.

So I decided to find out if my decades-old assumptions about the wealthy being stingier than the middle class were actually accurate. According to Trusts & Estates, high net-worth individuals generally give just under 10% of their income to charities. This turns out to be much higher than the average of the 89% of Americans who give to charity, which is 3.2% according to Network for Good. This makes sense. If someone has a net worth of a million dollars and/or an annual income of $200K or more (which was the criteria for the Trusts and Estates survey), they can afford to give a higher percentage of their income. And they do. I had been wrong to so harshly judge those wealthy suburbanites.

But how are wealthy politicians doing? When Mitt Romney finally released his tax returns, many began lauding his high rate of charitable donations which, at 14% this past year (though only 7% the year before), are higher than average for high net income people. Yet this is misleading. The bulk of Mitt’s donations have gone to his church and to church-related charities, and it’s a stretch to call these “charitable donations.” To remain a member of the Mormon Church in good standing Romney is required to give 10% of his income to the Church. Somehow a mandatory tithing doesn’t seem like a true charitable gift.

How did Newt Gingrich do? According to Bloomberg news, Newt gave only 2.6% of his $3.1 million 2010 income. This is below the average for all donors in the U.S. and dramatically lower than donors in his income bracket.

But lest we think this lack of generosity is confined to conservative Republican politicians, it’s noteworthy that the Bidens (while giving more in the last couple of years), have given an even smaller percentage than Newt during most of the last decade (only 1.5% some years), while the Obamas, prior to Barack becoming an elected official, also gave less than 2%. Last year the Obamas gave 6%—an improvement of course but considerably less than they could afford and less than the Trusts and Estates average for high net worth individuals like them.

It’s intriguing to me that wealthy politicians, even knowing that the public will scrutinize their charitable contributions, are so strangely stingy. At a time when so many are hurting, it would be so simple to be generous, even for the most self-serving of reasons. Given the rhetoric around “class warfare” and “envy” on the one hand and “sharing the burden” and “fairness” on the other, it’s almost bizarre that these high net worth politicians give so little proportional to their income.

When I was in college, I learned that observant Jews are taught to give 10% of their income to charity—not to their synagogue but directly to those in need. It doesn’t matter if you are a working class Jew or a wealthy Jew, the 10% applies to you, assuming you are not destitute. There is much commentary about what constitutes legitimate charity in Jewish law, primarily focused on ensuring that gifts are well thought out to maximize their benefits. A hallmark is anonymous giving and giving in such a way that the recipients become self-sufficient and prosperous.

I’ve personally taken Jewish law regarding charity to heart. To me, 10% is the bare minimum for those of means, and I hold myself to a much higher standard than this, which is perhaps why I’m so appalled by these politicians. Romney, Gingrich and Obama can afford to give so much more of their income and never suffer a day’s lack. They could easily join the ranks of others with similar means and demonstrate actual philanthropy for a country, and world, in need. This wouldn’t solve our grave challenges, of course, and some may consider this a petty concern given the dysfunctional systems we face, but it would demonstrate character and leadership that would model at least one quality we could use in this time of great challenge: generosity.

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Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), which offers online graduate degrees in comprehensive Humane Education; solutionary-focused programs and workshops; and an award-winning free resource center. Zoe has given six TEDx talks including her acclaimed “The World Becomes What You Teach.” She is the author of numerous books, including: The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries (2016); Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Claude and Medea (2007). Zoe is the recipient of the Unity College Women in Environmental Leadership award and was a subject of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.

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