The Least of These

The bad news and good news

Even though most Americans are in the top 5% of the world in wealth, we annually give only 2% of our enormous total income to non-profit organizations.

Of this, only 1.3% goes to non-profits with an international focus so we, as the richest people in the world, end up keeping 98.7% of our charitable donations for our own domestic purposes. Close to all of our giving goes to benefit people in the top 20% of the world. (If a person makes $10,000 a year, they are in the top 20%).

The arrow below represents 98.7% of all donations. Done to scale at 97 times smaller than the large arrow, the arrow representing the 1.3% going to the poorest is not visible to the eye.

Some of this 1.3% goes to non-profits in wealthy countries like England and Canada. This means that of the total private income in the U.S. only .02% goes toward helping those in the greatest need in the world.

For example, a person making $100,000 typically donates only $2,000 to non-profit organizations, and only $4 goes to non-profits working with the countries in the greatest need.

Americans typically think they give large amounts. Asked to estimate how much of the U.S. budget is used for foreign aid, Americans on average estimated 20% (respondents realized this did not include military defense costs). Asked what proportion would be an appropriate amount, Americans on average said 10%. The actual amount: 1%.

When all government and private aid is factored in, the U.S. only gives away .25% of its total income. This puts it behind almost every other industrialized nation. It is seven times lower than Sweden and the Netherlands.

Net Aid by major industrialized countries (US $ millions)

  Total ODA Other Official
Grants by Private
Voluntary Agencies
Total Flows
as % of GNP
Canada 1,744 5 113 4,621 6,483 0.95
Denmark 1,664 -3 32 482 2,176 1.39
France 4,105 14 Not avail. 1,439 5,557 0.43
Germany 5,030 -456 846 7,000 12,420 0.67
Italy 1,376 -103 37 9,537 10,846 1.01
Japan 13,508 -5,200 231 2,725 11,264 0.23
Netherlands 13,135 38 306 3,469 6,947 1.85
Norway 1,264 Not avail. 179 -5 1,437 0.91
Spain 1,195 3 Not avail. 2,272 3,471 0.61
Sweden 1,799 0 26 2,127 3,456 1.76
U.K. 4,501 -72 536 2,093 7,058 0.50
U.S. 9,955 562 4,069 10,666 25,252 0.25

The good news is that even though Americans lag far behind most other countries in giving to those in the greatest need, they do have a great latent willingness to do so.

For example, a poll in 2000 found an overwhelming 87% favored the US “giving food and medical assistance to people in needy countries.” When asked if they would be willing to contribute $50 in their tax dollars towards a program to cut hunger in half by 2015, 75% said yes, and only 19% said no.

In an October 1999 poll by PIPA, an overwhelming 68% agreed (31% strongly) that, “As one of the world’s rich nations, the United States has a moral responsibility toward poor nations to help them develop economically and improve their people’s lives.”

Studies have also found that Americans favor providing aid directly and channeling it through private non-profit organizations. They are aware that aid to governments is less effective, and they overwhelmingly favor aid going to programs that work directly with those in need.

So there is a latent willingness in Americans to give more aid internationally, though it is almost entirely untapped at present.

We aim to inspire Americans to donate more of their income overall, and to give more of it internationally to the places that need it the most.

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