That's not what one would expect.
Scores of readers responded, and I'd like to share some of their comments.
Kurt in Salem, Oregon wrote: "I work for a finance company and have many high net worth clients. I have observed with much curiosity the inverse relationship you describe where those with higher incomes give a disproportionately lower share of their income to charity."
Some readers, however, were skeptical. Many went directly to the weakest point in the statistics--- that few lower income taxpayers itemize their deductions but the figures were based on returns with itemized deductions. Rich A., a Houston reader, went to the source data and observed that only 9 percent of lower income returns were itemized while 89 percent of high income returns were itemized. It's a point well taken.
Z.A., an hourly airline employee in Texas, explained that while his adjusted gross income was often around $16,000, he lowered his tax liability through rigorous use of non-cash donations of used clothing, appliances, etc.
Catherine M. suggested that many of the people with lower reported incomes might also be workers in cash businesses such as restaurants and salons. As a result their charitable donations may reflect their total cash income rather than their reported W-2 income.
G.R. in Dallas pointed out that the differences may be due to the tax code itself. "The top 50 percent of earners in the U.S. pay 96 percent of total income taxes. The lowest income group pays little or no taxes and may actually pay 'negative' taxes due to government subsidies. Many people see taxes as charitable giving, since much of it goes to support the poor. Further, when high income people do give to charity, the IRS phase-out rules give them only partial credit (or none at all) for their contributions."
G.R. also observed that lower income earners have little fear of IRS audits and may feel free to exercise "more artistic license on reported income and giving. High income people are not necessarily more honest, just more closely watched."
He wasn't alone.
Walter A. chided me for "stoking the fires of class warfare." He pointed to the role government plays in "redistributing money from those more fortunate to those less fortunate."
Randy G. in Plano went further. "I have worked very hard, taken big risks, employed many people and generally have contributed to the economy significantly for over 30 years. My reward for that is that I am expected to pay over 35 percent of my income to the federal government in taxes."
Scott C. in Minneapolis wrote that he and his wife "don't contribute an especially large percentage of our income to charity. We've been working at increasing our contributions, but I also find that as we make more money and pay more in taxes, I look at (paying taxes) as a form of charity."
Jim C. wrote that the figures confirmed his experience as a door to door canvasser for a non-profit group. "The most open and generous people tended to be the working poor, who would often not only give me a crumpled ten dollar bill which really meant something to them financially, but would invite me in for dinner."
Richard K., who has collected on street corners for a number of national charities, offered that he had "noticed that you get more contributions from people driving economical and even beat-up cars than you do from folks driving BMWs and Lexuses."
Stanley D., a Texas reader, observed that the IRS knows nothing about his giving, but that he and his wife made gifts in 2005 in the middle to upper five figures. Where did the giving go? It went to help a woman they knew could not survive on her small Social Security check. It went to support a poor relative. It went to help their children achieve independence.
The pastor of a poor church in San Antonio wrote: "The poor taste poverty. The poor taste the hopelessness that many poor live in. The poor taste the sweetness of a little help." Another pastor in another church also noticed that the well-off give relatively less.
In statistics and discussions of human behavior there is no last word. There certainly is no formula for appropriate or politically correct giving.
In fact, the vast majority of the people reading this column are remarkably fortunate. Some would say blessed. Sadly, daily life dims our ability to realize this wonderful fact.
That is why giving is important. The discipline of reaching a giving goal is a kind of meditation--- it allows us to transcend concerns with tax rates. It may even reveal what is important. And what's not.
On the web:
Income Tax Data for 2003
"The discipline of giving," December 25, 2005
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