Summarizing the Case Studies

Having revisited all of our case studies, we now have an expanded and more nuanced picture of American giving. Anthony, Rosa, Deon, and Regina help us understand how lower levels of giving can be connected to resource-depleted contexts, where one of the best choices people can make is to focus on taking care of themselves and their families. On the other hand, Tanika demonstrates how people in a similar life situation can take care of their own family in a way that also supports the broader good of the community of parents and teachers. Linda and George exemplify relational giving, among other forms. At the other end of the giving spectrum, Susan, Ryan, Jackie, Cindy, and Michael all show what it looks like when giving takes a more central priority in the lives of Big 3 givers.

Conclusion: The “What” and “HowMuch” of American Generosity

We set out in this chapter to provide a series of snapshots of American generosity. Having done so, we can piece together the general picture of generosity among the majority of Americans—a picture we find to be rather dismal, at least on this first take. Though 90 percent of Americans we surveyed practice at least one of nine forms of generosity, participation in any one form was low. Nearly 50 percent of Americans did not give any money to charitable causes in the past year. Nearly 75 percent did not volunteer their time. Hardly any took political action. Only 50 percent give relational attention, but only 20 percent of those do so through interpersonal services. Why do so few Americans participate in any one generosity form? The common-sense response is that they cannot afford to give money or time. However, we showed that is not entirely the case. Though resources partially explain variations in levels of generosity, 40 percent of nonpoor

Americans still donated zero dollars in the past year. The vast majority of nonpoor American givers donated 3 percent or less of their annual income, and almost 50 percent gave less than a half percent of their annual income. Perhaps, we thought, the answer lies with limited time resources instead. And yet that does not appear to be the full story either.

A lack of monetary and time resources does not fully explain low levels of giving. The participation rate for volunteering is higher among full- and part-time workers and students than for nonelderly, retired Americans, that is those who should, theoretically, have the most free time to contribute. Almost all Americans spend far more of their free time on leisure—watching television, surfing the Web for non-work-related reasons, and shopping for nonessential goods—than on volunteering or political action. We found, for example, that 75 percent of Americans spent zero hours volunteering in the past month, while 89 percent spent more than 10 percent of their waking hours on leisure. Money and time are not the solution to the American giving puzzle.

We found as well that American generosity is unevenly distributed. Many give little, even when they have abundant resources, while a few give tremendously, even when they have relatively little, or less than some of those who give nothing. Thus the vast majority of Americans are not regularly generous, and yet there are many generous activities occurring in the United States.20 Thus, the glass may seem half-empty to those concerned about the health of charitable causes and interpersonal service relationships.

From a more optimistic perspective, our findings reveal tremendous untapped potential to raise levels of generosity and enhance the collective good. Many have yet to enter the generosity picture, and nearly all who give can up their giving amount. If we all did a little more, together we could do much to contribute to the common good. Our case studies show that people with fewer financial resources find ways to give toward the benefit of others, providing inspiration for more resourced Americans.

Besides levels of personal resources, there are a number of other social status and regional characteristics that may affect giving. In particular the factors of marital status, race and ethnicity, religious attendance, regional location, and education deserve further attention. In the next chapter we will dive deeper into understanding differences in giving levels by asking: Who are American givers? What are their characteristics? Are people in different parts of the country generous in different ways?

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