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Are Americans Stingy: The Answers Are Hard To Come By

Are Americans stingy? In the days immediately following the tsunami disaster in South Asia a United Nations official was quoted as saying that some western nations were "stingy" in their response to such disasters. His remarks were taken as a criticism of President Bush's first offering of $15 million in aid to the tsunami victims, a figure that was soon revised upwards, dramatically.

The Most Generous Nation on Earth?

Though the Dutch official who used the "S" word had not mentioned the US or President Bush by name, reactions from administration officials were swift and fierce. Colin Powell appeared on television asserting that the UN official was flat out wrong. The US is the "most generous donor nation in the world," he insisted. Others spoke less favorably about the US, pointing out that this country ranks near the bottom of the heap when it comes to the percentage of the federal budget allocated to foreign aid. So where, in fact, does the US stand on the "S" scale?

Or ... the Most Stingy?

The conclusion that we are among the "most stingy" comes from a set of facts that everyone agrees upon. Namely, the number of dollars allocated in a nation's federal budget for overseas developmental assistance (ODA), taken as a percentage of Gross National Product. The ODA figures are determined through a formula worked out at international conferences and summit meetings over many years. For example, in 1958 the World Council of Churches called on developed nations to devote one percent of national income to international development. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) later adopted a target of 0.7 percent and now publishes an annual report ranking donors in terms of ODA as a percentage of GNP. It is this published report that shows the US at or near the bottom of the list. For the full OECD rankings.

Since this ranking system began, however, the only countries that have managed to contribute at the 0.7 percent level are Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, and the Netherlands. Further, many now argue that the ODA measurement does not provide a full picture of a nation's contribution to the betterment of humanity. In the US, for example, there is a long history of private, charitable giving which surely should be included in any measure of a nation's generosity. Yet none of this is included in the OECD report.

Spinning the Generosity Statistics

Not surprisingly, several organizations have attempted to provide a more complete picture of US contributions going abroad from sources both public and private. In the wider view, the 9.9 billion provided by the federal government turns out to be only a fraction of total US giving. Adding the gifts from foundations, corporations, individuals, and religious organizations, US giving amounted to 56.2 billion in 2000. (For a chart showing the dollar amount of US giving, public and private, and the percentage in each category)

This moves the US up the chart quite a distance -- from 22nd to 7th place -- but still far from the top. Further, the all inclusive figure may stretch the meaning of the word "generous" to the breaking point. For example, consider an illegal immigrant from Mexico who has come to the US to escape poverty and sends a portion of his or her earnings to family back home. To arrive at the "wider view" of US "generosity," one would have to include all such remittances in the total. But since this individual is not even a US citizen, and his or her earnings are going to family members, it is quite a stretch to include the full 18 billion of such remittances in the measure of US generosity. Giving to one's own relatives whether here or abroad does not count as charitable giving.

Where does generosity stop and self-interest begin?

Further, a significant portion of what the US sends to certain countries is a matter of national self interest, rather than charity. Israel is, by far, the largest recipient of US foreign aid, but in this we are supporting a strategic ally rather than rendering humanitarian assistance to an underdeveloped nation. Israel ranks among the most highly advanced nations on the planet, with the largest military in the region and a nuclear arsenal. Federal money approved by Congress for aid to Israel is a matter of advancing our own self-interest, and is not comparable to spending money on the battle against AIDS in Africa, for example.

Such considerations bring the US back down the "generosity" ladder several steps. How far down will be a matter of intense debate. Bottom line, we are neither the most generous nation on earth, nor the most stingy. Rather, in the aggregate, we are about average.

And that is far from the end of the story.

In Measuring Generosity, Averages Don't Compute

The same groups that argue that nearly ALL cash flowing from the US to less developed nations should count as part of our nation's "generosity," also figure that the benefits of doing business abroad should be added into the equation.

Clearly a worker in Taiwan who earns a living manufacturing computers for sale in the US benefits from this global exchange. However, if we are to count the benefits of such trade, we must also count its costs. An acre of forest cut down in the Amazon so that certain crops can be grown for the US market is part of that cost; an oil spill in the North Atlantic, air and water polluted while producing goods for delivery to US consumers, these are all part of the costs involved in such global exchange. More important, such cost-benefit analysis of the consequences of our participation in the global economy is far, far off topic and tells us nothing about our "generosity" as a people.

The problem is that while one can average federal spending across an entire population, one cannot average a sense of generosity, compassion or charity.

The truth is that what we do collectively in the form of government assistance is one thing, while what we do individually in our private lives is something else entirely. And what we do collectively does leave this nation near the bottom of the list. Fortunately for the world's neediest people, there are some very generous and giving people among us. Unfortunately, there are also some very selfish and stingy Americans. And it is entirely beside the point to "average" the generosity of the most giving against the lack of giving by the most selfish and self-absorbed. Such averages make us look like we are a people of average generosity. But this would be like saying that since some Americans of child bearing age are pregnant, Americans are, on average, partly pregnant.

Further, while the world sees the US involved in humanitarian relief efforts around the world, it also sees the US spending far more on its military intervention in places like Iraq. $300 billion for the war in Iraq; $350 million for the tsunami victims in South Asia. The disparity between those figures shapes public perceptions of who we are as a people.

The truth is you can't take the measure of the soul of a people by massaging fact and figures, averages or statistics. And in the end the question of whether we are "generous" or "stingy" is quite beside the point.

The real question for readers of this article is this. How do you stand with respect to your own charitable giving?

What contribution are you making toward the relief of suffering around the world? These questions are ultimately ones that can be answered only in the conversation that takes place between you and your own conscience.

Jesus calls us to a higher standard.

Further, for those of us who identify as disciples of Jesus Christ, the world's goal of contributing seven tenths of one percent of income to help relieve global poverty falls far short of the mark. When Jesus confronted the rich, young man with the command: "Sell all that you have and give it to the poor," I somehow doubt that he would have been satistfied with a reply involving a calculation of what the nation of Israel was, at that time, doing with the young man's tax dollars to feed the hungry or house the homeless. Jesus called the young man, and he calls each of us, to a far higher standard. And by this standard few in the US are in a position to be comfortable about our own level of generosity. In fact, most of us are uncomfortably close to the standing of the rich young man in the eyes of God.

How rich are you? Find out now

America, the Stingy (Chart showing the US at the bottom of the pack in terms of government assistance for development around the world.

America, the Generous (Chart showing total US giving abroad.)

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.