The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Study: Conservatives and liberals are equally charitable, but they give to different charities

President Obama and his daughter Malia spend Martin Luther King Day at a soup kitchen. (The Associated Press)
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While Mitt Romney pays a lot less in taxes than people who make a great deal less than him, defenders point to his generous charitable contributions as evidence that he's giving back nonetheless. Paul Bedard at the conservative Washington Examiner, for example, touted the fact that Romney paid 57.9 percent of his income in either taxes or charitable donations in 2011. More generally, Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, frequently claims that conservative Americans are more generous with their charitable giving than their liberal counterparts.

Leaving aside the fraught question of whether charitable donations and taxes serve the same question, is this really true? Do conservatives give more away? According to a new study by two MIT political scientists, not really.

Michele Margolis and Michael Sances note that Brooks' conclusion comes from a dataset that doesn't really ask how conservative people are politically so much as how conservative they are socially. Using a dataset which uses more traditional questions to test political beliefs - the General Social Survey - they found no statistically significant relationship between peoples' political beliefs, or their partisan affiliation, and their charitable giving level. And this held at the state level too. There was no significant relationship between a state's level of  giving and the vote share that Bush received in that state in 2004.

However, they did find that there was a strong relationship between political beliefs and what kind of giving people engaged in. Conservative individuals and individuals in red states were more likely to donate to religious organizations, a finding that Margolis and Sances found to be statistically significant:

Conversely, blue states were likely to give to secular organizations:

As well as to 2005 tsunami relief:

This makes intuitive sense. Conservatives and Republicans are likelier to attend church or otherwise be religiously active than liberal and Democrats, so it makes sense that they'd direct their giving that way as well. But Margolis and Sances' work should put to rest the idea that liberals and conservatives differ in the level, rather than the form, of their charitable giving.