This year, calls for aid and donations have been relentless. In the wake of hurricanes that battered Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and with wildfires devastating northern California, Americans have been pouring money into relief causes: In the three weeks after Hurricane Harvey alone, around 50 Houston-based charities raised a combined total of more than $350 million.
While the outpouring of aid is encouraging, it comes at a time when American generosity is on something of a downward trend. For over 15 years, Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy has tracked the philanthropic behavior of over 9,000 individuals and families. They recently released the data to the public for the first time in a new website, called Generosity for Life, which shows that since the early 2000s, volunteering and charitable giving overall has dropped around 11%. A series of interactive maps allow people to manipulate the data to see how giving and volunteering differs by region. As a country, we appear to have peaked in generosity around 2005, giving an average of $1,024 annually; in 2015, the most recent year measured, that number dropped down to $872.
Of course, between 2005 and 2015, the Great Recession hit. That, says Una Osili, professor of economics at the School of Philanthropy, does explain a lot of the decline in giving–certainly unemployment, and the lack of growth in income and wealth had an effect.” But, she adds, it’s not the whole picture. “There’s also another set of factors that you could think of as more sociodemographic variables, which are changing patterns of giving,” Osili says.
One is the decline in religious affiliation. The number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated in the U.S. skyrocketed from 36 million in 2007 to 56 million in 2014, as religious affiliation–particularly among Christian faiths–declined. Faith is one of the strongest predictors of charitable patterns: 88% of donors captured in the Generosity for Life findings are religiously affiliated, and those who are, give an average of $970 per year, as opposed to $485 for those who don’t identify as religious.
“A parallel issue is a change in demographic patterns,” Osili says. “There’s this standard pattern that as people get married, buy homes, and form households, they’re more likely to give.” Following the Great Recession, the younger cohort of Americans (perhaps not incidentally, those who are also becoming less religious) are delaying marriage, homeownership, and having children, all of which have implications for giving.
There’s a sense in which these demographic shifts are attributable to the economic upheaval and attendant income stagnation following the 2008 financial crash; when people earn less money and take longer to become financially independent, it only stands to reason that they’ll delay other steps toward our concept of adulthood. But even when Osili adjusted for income changes over time, using a regression model, the demographic shifts still held sway.
The data that inform the Generosity for Life site comes from the School of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy Panel Study (PPS), and is collected every two years as part of the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the longest-running national study that has tracked the same families since 1968. The longstanding nature of this research project is exciting, Osili says, because it’s “really the first time that we’ve had this ability to look at patterns of American generosity over time, and how it’s changing.”
Which also points to one of the study’s shortcomings, and points to how it might adjust in the future years. The PPS collects volunteering and charitable giving data using a very traditional framework–it asks participants to note which type of organization they donate to, be it a religious entity or community-based organization, and also asks them how they volunteer their time, whether it be at senior centers or homeless shelters.
But there’s no way to capture, through the study’s current framework, new forms of giving through one-off app-based donations or crowdfunding efforts, nor is there really a way to capture the kind of online activism–petition signing, emailing elected officials–that’s been particularly noteworthy this year. “There are newer ways to give that are emerging, that are also harder to track,” Osili says. A GoFundMe page, for instance, aggregates myriad individual donations, but where they ultimately go varies–the money could all be funneled into a charitable organization, or it could go toward a handful of individual causes. “As these platforms become more commonplace, we’ll have to find a way to study how they interact with various ways people have always given,” Osili says.
Also, it’s worth noting that Generosity for Life’s data, for the time being, stops at 2015. We already know that following the election of Donald Trump last November, groups like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union saw a record spike in donations. It’ll be worthwhile to check back in on the data when the numbers for 2017 are available; perhaps the slump in giving that had characterized the preceding years will start to show an upward trend again.