Now, because charity is a means to fight poverty, we don’t expect the poor to be charitable. Indeed, they can be excused for being selfish and self-interested. The rich, especially the super-rich, on the other hand, are expected to be generous, and many of them are (there’s this recent story about 40 U.S. billionaires pledging half their wealth to charity).
However, as I’ve mentioned before, in relative terms (compared to an individual’s wealth) it’s in general the poor who are most generous. This is now confirmed by a serious of psychological experiments conducted by Paul Piff and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley (see here). Before the experiments, participants were asked to position themselves on a ladder with ten rungs on it. Each rung represented people of different levels of education, income and occupational status. They were asked to place an “X” on the rung they felt corresponded to where they stood relative to others in their own community. The experiments showed that
generosity increased as participants’ assessment of their own social status fell. … Upper-class participants said 2.1% of incomes should be donated. Lower-class individuals felt that 5.6% was the appropriate slice. (source)
Why is this the case? It seems odd, and possibly fatal for the argument that poverty alleviation should be done through private charity (an argument I espouse). One possible explanation is that people aren’t (relatively) selfish because they are rich but that they are rich because they are selfish. Indeed, selfishness can be seen as a driver of wealth creation. But the experiments were controlled for self-made wealth and inherited wealth, and this distinction didn’t change the outcomes. So selfishness as a driver of wealth is not very strong, if it’s a factor at all.
Hence the causal link probably goes the other way: people are selfish because they are rich. The experimenters hypothesize that a climate of compassion among the poor – as opposed to a climate of competition among the rich – can instill a general spirit of compassion, help and cooperation. And that does seem convincing.
Fortunately, the experiments also showed that the rich can be encouraged to be compassionate. (If poverty alleviation through charity must depend on the poor, we’ll not go very far). Compassion inducing videos had a positive effect on the level of charity among the rich.
- The Scrooge Effect: Research Shows Poor Are More Compassionate (uspoverty.change.org)
- Wealth, poverty and compassion: The rich are different from you and me (economist.com)
- Study: Poor Are More Charitable Than The Wealthy (npr.org)
- New Study Finds The Rich Horribly Stingy When It Comes To Charity (businessinsider.com)