It is common to hear that the popular uprising against the growth of the welfare state, with rising taxes and deficits, is based on a lack of caring toward those who are suffering the most in the current crisis. As soon-to-be ex-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi puts it, the tea party is working "for the rich instead of for the great middle class." Others have asserted that the backlash against the growth of government is nothing more than an attack on the poor.No doubt there are a number of reasons for this disparity between conservatives and liberals. Perhaps one of them is that conservatives are often motivated by religious beliefs which enjoin them to help the poor whereas liberals are more likely to be secularists who feel themselves under no such obligation.
Americans in general are very charitable, by international standards. Study after study shows that we privately give multiples of what our Social Democratic friends in Europe donate, per capita. But not all Americans are equally generous. One characteristic of givers is especially important in the current debate: the opinion that the government should not redistribute income to achieve greater economic equality.
Consider the answer to the question, "Do you believe the government has a responsibility to reduce income differences between rich and poor?" Many surveys have asked this over the years. In 2006, the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) found that Americans were almost equally divided on this question (52% in favor, 48% against). This is in stark contrast to the Europeans. For example, 94% of the Portuguese in the 2006 ISSP survey were in favor of redistribution; only 6% were against.
When it comes to voluntarily spreading their own wealth around, a distinct "charity gap" opens up between Americans who are for and against government income leveling. Your intuition might tell you that people who favor government redistribution care most about the less fortunate and would give more to charity. Initially, this was my own assumption. But the data tell a different story.
The most recent year that a large, nonpartisan survey asked people about both redistributive beliefs and charitable giving was 1996. That year, the General Social Survey (GSS) found that those who were against higher levels of government redistribution privately gave four times as much money, on average, as people who were in favor of redistribution. This is not all church-related giving; they also gave about 3.5 times as much to nonreligious causes. Anti-redistributionists gave more even after correcting for differences in income, age, religion and education.
Whatever the reason there appears to be little connection between opposition to the welfare state and personal generosity. If that's so, then the question arises as to why people who are personally charitable are so opposed to helping others through government largesse. I think the obvious answer is because, except in extreme cases of last resort, they perceive government aid as a band-aid that simply subsidizes poverty and provides a disincentive for getting out of it. It doesn't work and is often, even usually, a waste of money. People would much rather help through agencies they know are punctilious about how their money is used and which make every effort to apply every dollar as efficiently and effectively as possible. In other words, they prefer the government not handle their charity.