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Charitable giving: the United States hasn't lost its touch

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If I had a hammer (as the old song goes), and wanted to make good use of it in an election year, I'd shatter some myths about the American character. I'd start with one that goes like this: Americans are drifting into apathy and losing their benevolent impulses. Heedless of homelessness, poverty, and poor education, they turn away from the needs of their fellows. Government welfare is the only answer. So, sad as it is, taxes must be raised.

Ask for proof, and someone may try to convince you that Americans, facing economic squeezes, are giving away less money to charitable causes; that as two-worker families become the norm, Americans have less volunteer time to give; and that US corporations, pressured by bottom-line considerations, are distributing fewer dollars to worthy causes.

Logical? Sounds like it. Trouble is, those three assertions are entirely false. But so subtle is the falsity that it needs to be met squarely. Here are the numbers:

Some 90 percent of Americans give to causes of their choice, in amounts that average about $700 per household. That added up to $66 billion in 1985 (the latest figures available), an increase of almost 9 percent from 1984.

They also volunteer in droves: 48 percent of adults, and 52 percent of teen-agers, gave freely of their time to worthy causes in 1985. That year, too, adult volunteers gave an average of 3.5 hours a week - up from 2.6 hours in 1981.

Corporate giving has increased by 257 percent over the past 10 years - well ahead of the overall 179 percent increase in giving from all sources. In fact, corporate giving has risen three times as fast as corporate pretax profits.

These figures are from a recent report by Independent Sector, a Washington-based coalition of 650 corporate, foundation, and voluntary organizations. Called ``Daring Goals for a Caring Society,'' the report makes no apologies for the ax it grinds. By 1991, it wants to see charitable giving doubled and volunteer activity increased 50 percent.


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