Americans Are Extraordinarily Generous

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This is the season of giving, when many Americans donate their time and money to help the less fortunate.

According to American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks, author of the book Who Really Cares, three out of four families give to charity each year. The average donation from these families is $1,800. These Americans give to churches and to education, health, and social welfare programs. During the last half-century, private giving has amounted to 1.5 to 2 percent of gross domestic product per year. As Brooks writes, “Private American giving could more than finance the entire annual gross domestic product of Sweden, Norway, or Denmark.”

Despite America’s culture of generosity, there is a perception in some circles that Americans are selfish when it comes to the less fortunate. As former USAID official Don Eberly writes in his book, The Rise of Global Civil Society, “The United States is constantly taking heat from the international community and foreign aid advocates for being stingy in its foreign assistance.”

In a 2004 speech, for example, former president Jimmy Carter suggested that Americans are unconcerned with human suffering abroad: “We’ve failed miserably. Not just our government. Our country has failed ... We don’t really care what happens” to those in developing nations.

Jan Egeland, then serving as emergency-relief coordinator for the United Nations, claimed the United States and other countries were “stingy” with disaster relief in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

But those claims are undermined by the actual numbers. The real story about American giving is that we are remarkably generous not only toward our fellow citizens, but also toward those suffering abroad.

As Eberly points out, after the 2004 tsunami, American private donations reached $1.6 billion — “the most generous outpouring of American assistance in history ... a figure that far exceeded monies appropriated by Congress.”

America’s total global generosity is detailed by the Hudson Institute in its annual Index of Global Philanthropy. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, philanthropy from U.S. foundations, corporations, private and voluntary organizations, individual volunteers, religious organizations, and colleges and universities totaled $37.3 billion. Our government provided another $26.8 billion in official assistance.

So why do certain critics continue to paint a false picture of American generosity?

As Eberly notes, such people are often ideologically opposed to U.S. foreign policy and American-style capitalism. Their solutions to poverty always involve more government money without any preconditions.

Unfortunately, that money often is wasted or defrauded from those it was intended to benefit. But despite problems with government foreign aid, the future of American global philanthropy is bright. More and more companies have embraced strategic giving and volunteerism, and have partnered with the rising number of U.S. nonprofits and non-governmental organizations devoted to ameliorating suffering abroad. Twenty-five years ago, 70 percent of U.S. aid abroad flowed from the government. Today, 85 percent comes from the private sector.

The United States is filled with civic-minded, globally conscious individuals who use their own money to fund charitable causes both at home and abroad. Americans should feel proud to live in such an extraordinarily generous country.

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