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How Do You Decide Who Deserves Your Charity?

If you got a small cash windfall, would you share it with someone in need? Would your decision differ based on the recipient’s gender, or whether the person had kids, or a spouse, or a disability? Would you consider your own financial interest if you were on a tight budget? 

Queens College Professor Natalia Candelo, along with colleagues from University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Texas A&M, explored these questions in a study on altruism in a low-income community. Nearly three-fourths of the study’s 199 participants lived in households with annual incomes below $20,000. The study was published in the Southern Economic Journal.

Researchers asked each participant to divide $60 between themselves and another person in their community. Donors had the option of keeping all the money, or giving any portion to a recipient. Donors made four of these decisions, each time with a different recipient, and were told that one of their plans would be randomly implemented. No names were revealed, but donors did get some demographic information about each potential recipient.

On average, donors gave away $22.52, or nearly 40% of their $60. In 20% of the allocations, donors gave more to the recipients than they kept for themselves. In another 20 percent of their decisions, they kept all the money for themselves.

The researchers noticed distinct patterns among which recipients donors deemed most worthy. The donors gave more money to women than to men, more to those who were single than married, more to disabled individuals than non-disabled, and more to those raising children than those without kids. Interestingly, they did not give more money to those who were unemployed.

Participants were then asked which of their four plans for dividing the $60 they would implement if it were up to them. These decisions showed significant financial self-interest: The smaller the donation, the more likely participants were to implement that plan. The average donation dropped to 32 percent of the $60, down from nearly 40 percent they’d been willing to give when the donation was hypothetical. When the donation was certain to be given, donors avoided “the more expensive, needy recipients,” an understandable choice given their own poverty.

And yet, despite the donors’ own needs, a fundamental generosity prevailed. “Even in this more ‘selfish’ decision,” the authors noted, “over 70% of subjects still donate something.”