Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Widow's Mite is Real -- and Typical

Years ago, we happened to see in the papers some information about the personal wealth of New York's then-governor. Taking into account salaries, speaking fees and other sources, he and his wife had a household income slightly in excess of one million dollars. This is real money, to be sure, but in a city filled with investment bankers it wasn't enough to induce soul-destroying schadenfreude.

Then we saw his charitable giving.

The precise number escapes us at the moment, but it was quite low. Lower than our own tithe, by a good bit. More remarkably, it was lower than the tithes offered by several of the elderly people in our congregation. And make no mistake; we were then serving in the south Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States. Those investment bankers were far, far away. Our poor old widow ladies were poor.

We were genuinely shocked to learn that our governor, who was not an especially bad man as politicians go, was so miserly. But we should not have been. A recent UC Berkeley study, reported in the Economist, demonstrates that the poor are often willing to give more generously to charity than the rich.

Briefly, it's a series of experiments, not all the same, but all giving compatible results. Poor people (including those who believe that they are poor, or have been temporarily induced to "feel" poor) believe that larger portion of their income should be given for the support of those in need. In some cases, the disparity is remarkable: Upper-class participants said 2.1% of incomes should be donated. Lower-class individuals felt that 5.6% was the appropriate slice. That's a whopping difference.

The tests didn't just measure belief, either; they included practice. When a person (that is, a "plant") showed up late and needed help with the research procedures, poor people were measurably more ready to help than rich ones. And here's the kicker, at least for preachers:
In this case priming [i.e., temporarily inducing a different sense of one's status] made no difference to the lower classes. They always showed compassion to the latecomer. The upper classes, though, could be influenced. Those shown a compassion-inducing video behaved in a more sympathetic way than those shown emotionally neutral footage. That suggests the rich are capable of compassion, if somebody reminds them, but do not show it spontaneously.
Emphasis ours.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Fits with the Gospel for today, the Parable of the Rich Fool: What's mine isn't just mine, its mine to be held on to and not shared. So I'm not surprised. I just didn't like hearing so much of myself in today's sermon.

Anonymous said...

it is the last sentence that surprises me the most

Father Anonymous said...

"I just didn't like hearing so much of myself in today's sermon." Words to live by!

mark said...

I don't know if there is a direct connection, but my own experience as a workman for hire in the 70's, led me to the conviction that poor people always paid you when you finished a job and wealthy people were content to make you wait a long time for your payment.

Father Anonymous said...

I've heard that before, and I think there probably is a connection (although of course I'm no researcher). A friend from college works in the art world, and he has some wild stories about the lengths to which some rich people will go not to pay what they contracted for.