Charitable Giving

Residents of Massachusetts, like New Englanders in general, are seen as notoriously stingy when it comes to sharing their shekels. But just how stingy has been hard to say. CommonWealth took a look at two oft-cited state-by-state comparisons of philanthropic benevolence and found that neither of them stands up to scrutiny. So we decided to come up with our own.

In the best-known ranking, The Catalogue for Philanthropy‘s “Generosity Index,” Massachusetts typically comes in dead last. This listing compares state rank in average income with rank in reported contributions. Thus, Massachusetts stands out because its earning rank (fourth in the country) is far above its giving rank (43rd). Massachusetts fares a good deal better, coming in 39th, in the index of “Relative Giving Effort” developed by the National Center for Charitable Statistics and adapted locally last fall for the Beacon Hill Institute’s “Generosity Rate.” This measure ranks states by their average charitable contribution as a percentage of average income, as reported on tax returns. Massachusetts filers gave 1.7 percent of their collective income to charity, according to this measure, compared with 4.6 percent for top-ranked Utah and 1.2 percent for last-place West Virginia.

But here’s the rub: Both these scales seek to make broad generalizations about each state’s population, but their information on donations comes from itemized deductions on federal income-tax returns. Only 27 percent of filers nationally choose to itemize, and this proportion varies widely by state, ranging from 12 percent in South Dakota to 37 percent in New Jersey. So each weighs the giving of a self-selected (and highly variable) few against the income of all.

In contrast, CommonWealth‘s yardstick of comparative largesse is limited to the slice of the population that reports its contributions–and has the most money to give. Of those with incomes of $100,000 or more, 91 percent of households nationally (96 percent in Massachusetts) file itemized tax returns, with 75 percent or more itemizing in all but one state (Wyoming, at 60 percent). For the purpose of comparison, the contributions reported by these households can be fairly taken to represent the giving of all in the income category. So our Sharing the Common Wealth Index ranks the 50 states based on reported charitable contributions as a percentage of income for filers earning $100,000 or more.

This methodological fine-tuning is not enough to save Massachusetts from philanthropic ignominy, however. With its upper-income residents donating just 2.5 percent of their incomes to charity, Massachusetts ranks 45th in the nation in generosity. As in other rankings, heavily Mormon Utah and the Bible Belt states dominate the top tier. But regional variations in religious practice do not explain sharp differences between adjacent states in the Northeast. Magnanimous Vermont (22nd) shows up not only the Bay State but also its next-door neighbor, New Hampshire (49th).

Sharing the Common Wealth Index
Rank State Aaverage Contribution Per Return (Income Of $100,000 Or More) Percentage Of Adjusted Gross Income (Income Of $100,000 Or More)
1.
Utah
$14,518 6.44
2.
Wyoming
$17,145 5.01
3.
Arkansas
$10,007 4.39
4.
Nebraska
$10,279 4.19
5.
Mississippi
$8,474 3.79
6.
Oklahoma
$8,265 3.71
7.
South Dakota
$9,132 3.64
8.
South Carolina
$8,023 3.62
9.
Alabama
$7,948 3.58
10.
Tennessee
$8,198 3.41
11.
Iowa
$7,201 3.39
12.
Idaho
$7,557 3.38
13.
Wisconsin
$7,638 3.35
14.
North Carolina
$7,362 3.35
15.
Georgia
$7,554 3.35
16.
Montana
$7,042 3.32
17.
Kansas
$7,144 3.30
18.
Delaware
$7,012 3.27
19.
Minnesota
$7,358 3.20
20.
New York
$9,072 3.20
21.
Indiana
$6,845 3.10
22.
Vermont
$6,614 3.09
23.
North Dakota
$6,515 3.09
24.
Missouri
$7,045 3.08
25.
Oregon
$6,564 3.01
26.
Ohio
$6,678 2.96
27.
Kentucky
$6,537 2.95
28.
New Mexico
$5,808 2.92
29.
Nevada
$9,299 2.91
30.
Florida
$8,071 2.86
31.
Maryland
$5,922 2.85
32.
Colorado
$6,487 2.82
33.
Michigan
$5,980 2.81
34.
Virginia
$5,795 2.79
35.
Arizona
$6,391 2.79
36.
Maine
$6,265 2.78
37.
California
$6,688 2.75
38.
Pennsylvania
$6,189 2.68
39.
West Virginia
$5,321 2.67
40.
Texas
$6,470 2.64
41.
Hawaii
$4,868 2.57
42.
Washington
$6,564 2.54
43.
Illinois
$6,265 2.53
44.
Louisiana
$5,674 2.52
45.
Massachusetts
$6,232 2.50
46.
Rhode Island
$5,523 2.48
47.
Connecticut
$6,447 2.25
48.
New Jersey
$5,129 2.20
49.
New Hampshire
$4,958 2.19
50.
Alaska
$3,623 2.03
U.S. average
$6,890 2.86
CommonWealth calculations based on adjusted gross income and deductions for charitable contributions reported by filers with income of $100,000 or more, 1998.