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A new study on charity has important lessons for the social safety net

What does a study about charitable giving tell us about Republican plans to alter the safety net?
What does a study about charitable giving tell us about Republican plans to alter the safety net?
Win McNamee

It's fair to say most people think of giving to charity as a good thing to do. If we have extra resources, it feels right to help people who are less fortunate.

But there are complicated factors at work in helping us determine who should get our money. In a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers pick apart what makes us tighten our purse strings. And what it finds may have implications not only for people's charitable giving but also how they feel about how Washington spends their tax dollars.

What they studied

Several studies have found that people with a high moral identity — that is, who think of themselves as moral — tend to also give more money. Saerom Lee, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas-San Antonio; Karen Winterich, associate professor of marketing at Penn State; and William Ross, professor of marketing at the University of Connecticut set out to see whether moral identity always increases charitable giving, and if not, what might get in the way.

How they tested it

Participants were given a small amount of money by researchers and were presented with the opportunity to donate to nonprofits helping different populations, like poor people and AIDS patients.

But the participants were then told different things that researchers thought could make them think the recipients were responsible for their own problems. For example, some participants were told that the poor people they were helping were unable to find anything other than low-wage work, while others were told that the people they were helping were poor because of an addiction like drugs or gambling. Likewise, the fictional AIDS patients in some cases had contracted the disease from their birth mothers, while others had gotten it from drug use or unprotected sex.

What they found

The scientists found that people take aid recipients' responsibility into account when they give money. People with high moral identities were more likely to give if they perceived people were not responsible for their own problems but less likely if the potential recipients appeared to be victims of their own decisions. Having a high moral identity increased likelihood of giving because it meant higher senses of empathy toward people who were perceived to not be responsible for their problems. Meanwhile, a stronger sense of justice got in the way when it came to recipients perceived to be responsible for their problems.

However, people tended to increase their donations when they were prompted to recall their own past moral failings, because they also had boosted senses of empathy.

What it means

The researchers frame their results as a lesson to charities: be careful how you frame the people you're helping, and help potential donors to identify with those you want to help.

"[O]rganizations need to be sure to specify or imply low responsibility of their recipients in their charitable appeals or, alternatively, seek to elicit empathy to be most effective in their fund-raising," they write.

Still, it's hard to read these results without thinking about the social safety net in the US, particularly just days after Paul Ryan released his new poverty-fighting plan. The arguments about that plan tend to center around this question of responsibility. Ryan's plan requires people to take responsibility for their situations, so to speak, by writing out "life plans" to get out of poverty.

But detractors said the Wisconsin Rep. missed the point entirely because he assumed people were to blame for their conditions.

"[I]t presupposes that the poor somehow want to be poor; that they don't have the skills to plan and achieve and grow their way out of poverty," wrote New York Magazine's Annie Lowrey.

Co-author Winterich says the study can reasonably be used as a window into how people feel about government spending, despite the fact that the study focused on charities. People who oppose spending money on particular populations of course might be moral, she says, but "they just judge that use of money an immoral use of money," she says.

One question this study raises is the philosophy of the federal safety net: should it exist only for those who are officially deemed to have been dumped into poverty through no fault of their own?

And if one does believe that, there is one ethical dilemma: children.

Lowrey nods to this idea in her piece, and as Matt Bruenig writes at left-leaning think tank Demos, 35 percent of the "officially poor" are kids. So even if those kids' parents are personally responsible for a family's poverty (and there are parents out there that fall into this category), there will easily be fallout in the form of poor and hungry children.