The Myth Of American Generosity

As someone who is often critical of American consumerism, one of the most common retorts I hear is “yeah, but did you know America is also the most generous country on earth?” It’s a nice thought, but it’s not true.

This rumor is perpetuated by the World Giving Index. In 2014 the study ranked America as the most generous country on the planet. However, Myanmar has placed first every other year, with America taking second.

But this would be a pretty lame post if all I revealed was that America is actually second instead of first. The truth is that the polling is rigged in America’s favor.

Gallup asked people which of the following three charitable acts they had undertaken in the past month:

  1. Helped a stranger, or someone they didn’t know who needed help?

  2. Donated money to a charity?

  3. Volunteered your time to an organization?

Those three things are all ways to be generous, but the questions discriminate against the most generous people on the planet.

The best way I know of to explain this is by using Malawi (Africa) as an example. Malawi has a population of about 15 million people with about 10 million living in rural villages. Most of those village dwellers don’t have cars, electricity, running water, etc. So let’s look at how the average rural village dweller might answer the above 3 questions.

  1. “I help my neighbors survive all the time. But since I’ve never left my village, I don’t usually meet many strangers.”

  2. “What’s a charity and how would I get money to them?”

  3. “I help my neighbor with his farm! Does that count? Oh, it’s not an organization. Got it.”

According to the World Giving Index, the average Malawian village is one of the least generous places on earth. I wonder how the polling results would come back if we got rid of all three questions and replaced them with just one: “When was the last time you loved your neighbor?”

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