What the Giving Habits of the Poor Reveal: Dialoguing with The Atlantic Magazine

"The wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest, 3.2 percent.”

Ken Stern led off his recent The Atlantic article with these shocking words. He continues later on:

“One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income.”

The explanations he suggests for this conundrum are fascinating, but even more telling is a spiritual issue that he hinted at, possibly without realizing he was doing so:

“Wealth affects not only how much money is given but to whom it is given. The poor tend to give to religious organizations and social-service charities, while the wealthy prefer to support colleges and universities, arts organizations, and museums.”

The poor in America primarily care about faith and practical services, while the rich mainly care about intellectual endeavors. It may be taking the data too far, but this seems to also suggest that those who are poor recognize spiritual poverty. They know that they not only need physical help; they also need spiritual nourishment. As Sterns notes, based on his questions of scholars, those with the least care about others with little, because they know what it’s like to struggle.

If the poor care about faith, shouldn’t all those who help the poor? It seems rather incredible that while attempting to help those in need people often leave out the faith component, when the faith component is something the poor themselves recognize as necessary. It's important that we all recognize how critical meeting both spiritual and physical needs are, as the poor in America, percentage wise, seem to do.

Empathy is critical to our success when helping others. Exposure to the problems at hand is likewise critical. But along with these things, we must pay attention to what those we’re helping are saying to us, both in terms of their words and actions. We must really listen to those we're helping and act accordingly. We must care about what they care about. And we must realize that the whole person is to be valued, loved, and empowered.


John Barry
John Barry


CEO, President, and Founder of Jesus' Economy. John is the author/coauthor of 12 books and General Editor of Faithlife Study Bible and Lexham Bible Dictionary.