Monday, November 29, 2004

Charity Blues

Mark Hyman's argument that conservatives are more moral than liberals because statistics suggest citizens of “red” states give more to charities than those living in “blue” states is filled with deceptive claims, the fundamental one being that you can make judgments about individuals based on collective data. This fails simply as a matter of logic.

But for the sake of argument, let’s put aside this fatal flaw and assume that 1) the category of “red” or “blue” applies not only to the state as a political entity, but to each and every one of its citizens (i.e., if Florida is red, than all Floridians are red) and 2) the average giving numbers Hyman refers to also apply not to the collective population of a state, but to the individual actions of each and every individual in that state.

Even with these two absurdities granted, Hyman’s argument doesn’t work. To begin with, the data is based only on donations claimed on itemized tax returns. The number of itemizers from state to state varies widely. Almost without exception, states that have few numbers of itemizers are at the top of the giving rankings and those with many itemizers at the bottom. Why? If the top 18% of Arkansas population itemizes, but 42% of Connecticut tax payers itemize, you end up comparing the gifts of the wealthiest Arkansans to nearly half of Connecticut. Even when taking into account differences in average income, Arkansas will come out on top. And by the way, nearly all low itemizing states are red; nearly all high itemizing states are blue.

But that’s a trifling detail compared to more fundamental problems. Charity, as they say, begins at home. The most generous states in Hyman’s estimation are also those with most poverty, particularly child poverty. It makes sense that those who see and come into contact with abject poverty would be most likely to give to local charities. The need is simply greater. The poorest states with the most children living in poverty? They’re red.

This is all the more important when we take into account that the states that have the most poverty are those who do the least to help their most impoverished citizenry. The nonpartisan Urban Institute did a study comparing states by their “willingness to spend” on children in poverty. The study controlled for average income, number of children in poverty, and funds received from the federal government. This allowed a comparison of the state governments themselves. The result? The top ten “willing to give” states are virtually all blue. The bottom ten are a sea of red.

Hyman wants us to believe blue staters are less generous. Nonsense. It’s simply a matter of how the money is collected and dispersed. Blue states do it through taxes. Red states rely on charity. Given the state poverty rankings, it’s pretty clear which philosophy works better.

The study cited by Hyman can’t tell us anything about the personal tendencies of conservatives or liberals to make charitable donations. If such a study could be devised, we’re virtually certain it would show a negligible difference.

What this study does show, however, is that poverty inspires people to give. The people who see it firsthand understand how destructive it is to have a significant percentage of your neighbors living in dilapidated housing, going to run-down schools, and not having enough food to feed hungry children. The Mark Hyman’s of the world think poverty is a sign of moral weakness—you’re only poor if you deserve to be, and wealth equals decency. He celebrates charity (as does the administration) not because he admires it, but because it serves as cover to slash government assistance to those who haven’t “proven” themselves by earning as much money as their neighbors.

But poverty is an inevitable result of a free market economy. As long as capitalism exists, there will need to be help given to those who end up on the bottom of the food chain. Free markets are a wonderful thing, but by themselves they lead to a steady erosion of society. Those in the red states who attempt to assuage the poverty in which so many are mired, and which their state governments do comparatively little to deal with, understand this all too well.

Maybe it’s about time Hyman did also.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

See my comment on 11/17

At 4:56 PM, Blogger David said...

At Media Matters for America we just did a comprehensive analysis of the last month of "The Point." I think you will find it very interesting.

It's here:

Thank you.

David S. Bennahum
Senior Fellow, Media Matters for America


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