How Religious Affiliation Affects Charitable Giving

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Douglas C. Pizac / AP

The Salt Lake Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Just as America is often divided between red and blue and rich and poor, a new study shows a similar gap between Americans who give more generously to charity and those who don’t. But the study says almost as much about Americans’ religious participation as it does our willingness to give.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy released a fascinating survey this week on how (and how much) America donates to charitable organizations. One of the most interesting findings shows that those who tend to give the most live in more religious areas. A substantial portion of giving in the U.S., you see, comes in the form of tithing to churches. When religion is taken out of the equation, the charitable landscape alters considerably.

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Topping the journal’s list of most generous states is Utah. Four of Utah’s cities headed up the list of U.S. metropolitan areas when it comes to percentage of discretionary income given to charity. Households in Provo, Utah, give away the most as a percentage — 13.9% of discretionary income. For the state as a whole, 10.6% of Utah’s discretionary income goes to charity, well ahead of second-place Mississippi at 7.2%.

The state’s giving nature largely comes from its sizable Mormon population, a faith that heavily emphasizes tithing of at least 10%. Research shows that close to 90% of Mormons say they tithe regularly. (Remember when news broke that Mitt Romney gave millions to the Mormon church over the last several years?)

But Utah is a bit of an outlier. The rest of the more generous states are dominated by the South – the country’s most Christian region and another faith that regularly emphasizes tithing 10%. Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina round out the top five.

Take away churches as charities, however, and red states no longer dominate the world of donations. Instead, New England – a region that leans Democratic, with far fewer religiously affiliated Americans but with more affluent residents – catapults toward the top.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that the South gives roughly 5.2% of its discretionary income to charity– including both religious and non-religious groups – while New England only gives 4%. But if churches are excluded, the South’s percentage drops to 0.9% and New England’s only drops to 1.4%. New York state would be second in the country in giving if religion was removed from the equation, while Pennsylvania would jump from No. 40 into the top 5.

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The study, which analyzed 2008 IRS records of taxpayers’ who made $50,000 and up, found a number of other interesting facts, including:

  • households earning $50,000 to $75,000 give more to charities as a percentage of discretionary income than those who made more than $100,000;
  • households making more than $200,000 give less when they’re near similarly wealthy households. But households that were in more economically diverse ZIP codes tended to give more than those that weren’t;
  • the more generous states voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008, while the seven-lowest ranking ones voted for then-Sen. Barack Obama.