Wealthy Americans, Philanthropy, and the Common Good

Publication Date:
Jan 2011
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

It is sometimes assumed that wealthy Americans exert their political and socialinfluence in narrowly self-interested ways. In this paper we draw upon new data from apilot study of the top 1% or so of wealth-holders to investigate to what extent and in whatways wealthy people actually think about the common good, and what they personally doabout it. We find that our wealthy respondents cite many potential problems facing thecountry as very important, and that they offer serious ideas about how to address them.They are highly active in politics and initiate many contacts with high-level federalofficials. Most of these contacts – as best we can tell – concern problems of broadcommon interest rather than their own narrow self interest. We also find high levels of volunteering to help with a variety of causes, and high levels of charitable contributions –including some extraordinarily generous contributions. At the same time, we suggest thatthere is room to improve the quality and especially the quantity of charitable giving in theUnited States, which (as a proportion of income) falls well below the 10% annual“tithing” norm and (as a proportion of wealth) appears to fall far short of the Gates-Buffett “Giving Pledge” cumulative target of at least 50% of wealth.We also discuss variations in wealthy peoples’ charitable activity related to theirwealth levels, their personal characteristics (such as church attendance), their economicpositions (for example, professionals as vs. business owners and managers), and theirpolitical attitudes and orientations.


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