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Are the Rich Less Charitable?

A look at the perhaps surprising relationship between prosperity and community.

A homeless man living in the West Valley. Photo by Mayra Flores de Marcotte. Los Gatos Patch
A homeless man living in the West Valley. Photo by Mayra Flores de Marcotte. Los Gatos Patch
As President Obama enters the twilight of his presidency, he has vowed to concentrate on the swelling problem of income inequality in the United States.

The chasm between the rich and poor in this country is a topic of frequent debate—and ire. This is in part why the antics of a wealthy midwest businessman last month were so interesting.

Jonnie Wright, CEO of a consulting firm in Iowa, traded in his suit and tie for some mangy duds in an effort to appear homeless on Christmas Eve. Then he hit the streets begging for money.

To those who took pity and showed charity, Wright handed back an envelope containing either a $10 or $100 bill, as well as a letter that explained what he was doing—giving back to those who give. In all, Wright gave out $1,000 that day, and he pledged to match each donation he received, dollar for dollar, to hand over to a local homeless shelter.

My first reaction to this feel-good story was that, although it’s a nice gesture, Wright’s $1,000 would have been better used if he’d donated it to the needy, not people who can afford to hand out money on the streets.

As it turns out, however, Wright’s unusual stunt likely found the very people who needed a boost in their holiday budgets. Research indicates that it’s the poor and those with lower incomes who tend to give more, and as wealth grows, generosity shrivels.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, experienced this firsthand: “Somehow, when I am thinking hard about making more money and rising in wealth and enjoying materialistic benefits, I do feel personally that I am not as responsive to the needs of others."

Keltner’s impression was confirmed by his work on income and charity. He discovered that "in just about every way you can study it, our lower-class individuals volunteer more, they give more of their resources—they're more generous.”

Given the current gulf in the United States between the relative few haves and the many have-nots, this is particularly thought-provoking.

Do you think that as people become more affluent, they are less charitable? Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

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