Why the Rich Give the Least

I don’t care about the poor as much this month as I did last month. 

Honestly, I’m thinking less about issues of justice. I’m less engaged with the struggle and I am more engrossed in my own problems.

That’s because I’m traveling away from the urban poor communities where we lived in Cambodia. I’m spending a few months in New Zealand working remotely so my daughter can finish high school. 

My values and attitudes haven’t changed, but my context is vastly different.

In short, the reason I don’t care as much this week is simple: isolation from the poor.

Outta sight.

Outta mind.

Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley with a snappy name, has studied the charitable habits of different social classes. Based on his research, Piff told New York magazine, “The rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. They are more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, [jerks].”*

Pretty harsh. But Piff’s research suggests that exposure to need drives generous behavior and isolation from the needs of the world drives self-centeredness.

Multiple studies have backed this up. Researchers from The Chronicle of Philanthropy studied charitable habits across different American neighborhoods. Poorer postal codes gave relatively more. Richer neighborhoods gave relatively less.

But here’s the kicker—those wealthy folks who lived in overwhelmingly rich neighborhoods (i.e., areas where more than 40% of households earned at least $200,000 a year) were significantly less generous than comparably wealthy people who lived in more diverse surroundings.

So, generosity was less a factor of affluence and more a factor of exposure to need. Interesting, eh?

Isolation breeds selfish behavior.

John Hawthorne in his article, “Why don’t the rich give more?” agrees, “One of the reasons the rich don’t give as much to the needy is that they don’t see the needy as much.”

The solution is “simple” yet difficult. The solution is engagement.

We need to get out of our bubbles. We need to find places of crossover with folks who are different from us. We need to be continually rubbing shoulders with people on the margins, people in need. We need to tear down the walls of insulation around our safe lives and find ways to engage with the needs of the world.

And we’ll find that we are more giving, generous, open-handed people as a result.

In 2022 do you have life rhythms in place that will lead to engagement?

I don’t care about the poor as much this week. And that’s why I can’t wait to find ways over the next few months in New Zealand to get engaged outside my middle class bubble. So that my priorities can be realigned with the priorities of Jesus, to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4).

What do you reckon?

Read more from Craig Greenfield »

This article originally appeared on CraigGreenfield.com and is reposted here by permission.

*Research quoted in this blog post comes from Ken Stern’s book, With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give.

Craig Greenfield
Craig Greenfield

Craig Greenfield (@craigasauros) is the founder of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World (Zondervan). A storyteller and activist living in urban slum communities for the past 15 years, Craig’s passion is to communicate God’s heart for the marginalized around the world.