Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Charities feel Christmas fear

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“Charities Fear Tax Bill Will Cut Giving” is the kind of headline leaders of churches and charities hate to read about trends that they don’t like to face, as face they must. The subhead in a story reflecting on the current tax bill in The New York Times does not point to the more profound reasons for “making a donation,” but it is realistic. Most believers and “doers” who give to charities and churches do so out of commitment to a faith and its institutions and services, and with an ear and an eye for stories of need that they hear about and see. Better than that, many millions of citizens lead on the giving front, no matter what government does. How much do they lead?

America magazine (December 11 issue) headed its “Season for Giving” page with statistics and a graph which suggest something of what is at stake. The editors collated many surveys and sources, but footnoted the data in four lines of print so small that only a special microscope might render them legible. Trust us, relatively, as we trust the many donation-counting agencies, relatively, aware as they and we are about the difficulty of gathering data based on polls, reports by agencies, etc. We hurry to the point:

The main graph in America deals with “Contributions by Type of Charity” as of last year. The largest sector in the circle is “Religion,” at 32%. We keep reminding ourselves of the role of “religion in public life,” and know that, for all its shortcomings, the religion sector counts. Next is “Education” at 15%, then “Human Services” at 12%, through “Foundations,” “Health,” etc., down to “Arts/Culture” at 5% and “Environment/Animals” at 3%. No surprises to anyone who keeps up with activities represented by those numbers.

There’s more. We learn why America, we, and probably you readers care about “giving” at this time of the year: 50.5% of charities get most of their contributions from October through December, and 24% of charitable contributions are made between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. There is a bit of an “up” in charitable donations, by 2.7% from the year before, 2015, for a total of $390 billion. It is easy to see why anything that Congress does to dull or dim the lustre of what goes into collection plates, envelopes, and credit card accountings jolts those who must collect and who get to put to work these donations.

Per capita giving by adults was $1,155 in 2016. For those who think there were only “good old days,” if you adjust for inflation, you will find that in 1954, at the peak of the Eisenhower-era “Religious Revival,” the figure was $333. There is still work needed on all fronts: 33% of U.S. households report no giving to charity. This means that members of “the remaining” 67% of the population give 4% of their income on average. Before “statistics fatigue” sets in—are you still with us?—notice that 72% of giving is by individuals. If they give to and through their faith communities, note that the typical Catholic household gives 1.1% to 1.2% of its income to its church, while the typical Protestant household gives double that, 2.2% to 2.5%.

We are not doing “sighting” for Sightings the next two Mondays, and promise not to overload our January columns with statistics. Still, they tell us something, as opposed to nothing, as to where American hearts are this “giving season.”

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.

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