America's wealthiest 1 percent have gotten a bad rap as of late. Depending on your perspective, you might think their representation as greedy, disinterested and selfish is or isn't deserved. But some social scientists at Northwestern University decided to survey 104 Chicago-area households that make more than $7.5 million to ask them about their attitudes and feelings about money, the poor, charity and government.
What did they find? First, they asked the 1 percenters about their politics. The affluent households they surveyed are more likely to vote, call their elected officials or contribute to a campaign than the rest of us. Sixty-four percent said they'd given money to a campaign, and on average, they'd contributed $4,633 to political campaigns and organizations in the last year.
What's their political bent? The study says that the 1 percent think "getting government out of the way” will solve a lot of our nation's problems. They lean toward cutting social programs and think private charities and free markets are better solutions. If you ask the 99 percent what they think America's most pressing problem is, they say jobs and the economy. The 1 percent says it's the deficit.
But the survey shows they may not be as greedy as they're portrayed. On average, these families gave 4 percent of their income to charity annually. One in five families had a private foundation for charitable giving. They're also more likely than the rest of the population to volunteer. Nine in 10 families reported that they volunteer, and the majority volunteered in several areas.
“To the surprise of some members of the research team, our study suggests that most members of the 1 percent are concerned about the common good, not just about their own narrow self-interests,” said Northwestern political scientist Benjamin Page. “In some important cases, however, their beliefs about how to achieve the common good differ markedly from what other citizens believe.”
While this study is interesting, especially in this political climate, the answers didn't really surprise me. They were pretty much the textbook answers from political science 101. Poor people, particularly the urban poor, are likely to be more liberal. So are the young. The more your income climbs, the more likely you are to be conservative.
Rich people have more time and more money to influence political officials. Is that really a surprise to anyone?
Their answers on charitable giving aren't as straightforward. There are data to support the idea that the wealthy are more likely to give and more likely to volunteer, but also recent studies that show that poor people give higher percentages of their income to charity. The rich also have more time to volunteer and more money to give to charity. If you work two minimum wage jobs to support your family, how much time do you have to give back?
In addition, how much money you give to charity doesn't always reflect how generous you are. A recent experiment at the University of California showed that poorer people tended to have more compassion toward those who are in need than the rich. If we're being truly cynical, the rich have much more to gain from giving to charity than the poor: tax breaks.
This isn't to say that the 1 percent are money-hoarders who are only looking out for themselves. But to those gathering in the streets, camping out in city parks and on sidewalks, I doubt this survey will do much to change their minds.
Photo credit: Darya Mead
© Community Renewal Society 2011