Mitt Romney's tax documents are out, and they show the GOP frontrunner and his wife donated $7 million to charity over the past two years, an amount equal to about 16.4 percent of their income. The Romneys gave to a number of secular non-profits, including the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, the Center for the Treatment of Pediatric MS, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Homes for Our Troops. But they donated far and away the most money–$4.1 million in cash and $2 million in stock–to the Mormon church.
In their decision to prioritize religious giving, the Romneys are typical of American donors. When I was working at The Daily Beast in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, we decided to take a close look at how disasters impact American charitable giving. We were surprised at the results of our research: According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, only about one-third of all American charity–from individuals, foundations, and corporations–directly serves the poor, either within the United States or abroad. Year after year, religious organizations, typically local church groups, take home the biggest slice of American charity, even in the wake of major humanitarian crises.
For example, Americans donated $100.63 billion to religious causes in 2010, accounting for 35 percent of all giving.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Americans responded with $2.7 billion in donations over the first year. Yet this swell of support accounted for less than 1 percent of total giving in that time period. A similar pattern took shape after 9/11 and the Asian tsunami of 2004. In fact, the discrepency between emergency humanitarian giving and religious giving was so large, it was difficult for us to visualize on this chart; imagine the bar on the right as five times higher than it actually is:
Of course, some religious giving does serve the poor, through church-run food banks, homeless shelters, and the like. But Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, told me this is not generally the case. “A large part of that goes toward the ongoing cost of owning and operating a church,” he said, “paying for the rabbi, minister, or priest; heating and air-conditioning costs.”