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How the Partisan Divide Affects Charitable Giving

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With political divisions in the U.S. on stark display in the lead-up to midterm elections, a new study examines the philanthropic giving of voters in red and blue counties across the country to determine how party affiliation affects charitable giving.

Researchers at Brigham Young University, the University of Georgia, North Carolina State University and IUPUI (a partnership of Indiana and Purdue universities) found that voters who live in counties where political competition is high give less to charity.

The findings, they said, may indicate a sense among voters in those counties that they are unsure whether their contributions will to go to like-minded people.

“The more politically divided we get in our communities, the more we’re going to see consequences of that spill over into other facets of life, including our charitable giving,” Rob Christensen, the study’s co-author who teaches in the BYU Marriott School of Business, said in a statement.

“The more political competition in a county, the more suspicion there seems to be in how we spend our charitable dollars.”

The upside for charities of the country’s polarization, the findings suggest, is that donations will likely increase in red counties that get redder and in blue counties that get bluer.

“Lower levels of competition may be an indication that we’re sorting into enclaves of like-minded political preferences,” Rebecca Nesbit, a study co-author based at the University of Georgia, said in the statement. “While this sorting may lead to higher levels of charity, it may not help heal the political divisions in our country.”

Researchers analyzed 2012 and 2013 itemized deduction tax data from the Internal Revenue Service’s Individual Master File, which aggregates information from individual income tax returns at the county level. To measure political ideology, they looked at the percentage in each county that voted Republican in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

They found that counties with a higher proportion of Republican-voting residents made bigger charitable donations than counties with a higher proportion of Democrat-voting residents. But this finding comes with a major caveat — they also found that the as the proportion of those voting Republican increased in counties that were not Republican-dominated, giving actually decreased.

“If we ignore other things like tax burden and political competition, then Republicans appear more generous,” Christensen said, adding that on the surface, this “supports the notion that conservative communities prefer to redistribute resources through private rather than public efforts.”

Put another way, if taxes are high in a county, Republicans tend to give less to charity. On the flip side, the study showed that Democratic-leaning counties are less stingy overall in redistributing their money, both through charity and government channels.

The study’s researchers said the findings were increasingly important as major shifts in political competition and philanthropy continue. They noted that other research showed that younger generations were giving less to institutional charities — the venerable United Way, for example — and more to causes closer to them, such as a GoFundMe page for a social-media friend.

Christensen said the next step for researchers is to examine individual-level dynamics and ask donors how conscious they are of the influence of politics on their charitable giving.


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