lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans. In 2001, Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization focused on charitable giving, found that households earning less than $25,000 a year gave away an average of 4.2 percent of their incomes; those with earnings of more than $75,000 gave away 2.7 percent.
This situation is perplexing if you think of it in terms of dollars and cents: the poor, you would assume, don’t have resources to spare, and the personal sacrifice of giving is disproportionately large. The rich do have money to spend. Those who itemize receive a hefty tax break to make charitable donations, a deduction that grows more valuable the higher they are on the income scale. And the well-off are presumed to have at least a certain sense of noblesse oblige. Americans pride themselves on their philanthropic tradition, and on the role of private charity, which is much more developed here than it is in Europe, where the expectation is that the government will care for the poor.
But in the larger context of “the psychological culture of wealth versus poverty,” says Paul K. Piff, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, the paradox makes sense. Piff has made a specialty of studying those cultures in his lab at the Institute of Personality and Social Research, most recently in a series of experiments that tested “lower class” and “upper class” subjects (with earnings ranging from around $15,000 to more than $150,000 a year) to see what kind of psychological factors motivated the well-known differences in their giving behaviors. His study, written with Michael W. Kraus and published online last month by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.