As the impact of the recession spread across the country in 2008 and 2009, millions of Americans reached out to charities for help.
And those charities, strapped for resources to aid those in need, reached out to the American public for donations.
A new Internal Revenue Service report shows that the response, at least among average middle class families, was to dig as deeply into their pockets as they could and give more to charity.
In 2008 and again in 2009, the average donation among middle-class taxpayers actually increased, despite their own fears about the economy. Among taxpayers with annual incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, the average deduction for charitable giving rose from $2,164 to $2,218 in 2008 -- and then went up again the next year, to $2,286.
The figures include only those taxpayers who itemized deductions on their returns because those are the only ones who report their charitable donations to the IRS. That also makes it impossible to track giving among those who earned less than $50,000 because so few of them are itemizers.
The total amount donated by middle-class taxpayers actually fell by more than $3 billion during those years, however. That's simply because fewer Americans earned middle-class incomes. In 2007, 19.3 million itemizing taxpayers made between $50,000 and $100,000. By 2009, that had dipped to 16.9 million.
What hurt charities and the people who rely on them the most, though, was a tremendous drop in total donations from the wealthy.
In 2007, Americans with incomes of $1 million or more donated $55.5 billion. By 2009 that had plummeted to $29.2 billion.
That decline was driven by two factors: The number of very high-income taxpayers was cut severely, from 375,567 to 220,455. At the same time, wealthy individuals' average taxable income also dropped dramatically, from $3.6 million to $3.1 million.
The numbers confirm the views of local non-profit leaders, who saw similar giving patterns.
"What we had was attrition in the number of overall donors because so many people just weren't capable of giving," said Tom Toronto, president of Bergen County's United Way. "We also saw people give more who could. I think the reason for that is you would have been hard-pressed to find someone who didn't know someone in their family, neighborhood or school who was affected. There was a feeling that folks were hurting who were proximate to them."
Toronto added that the giving trends during the depth of the recession mirrored what usually happens in tough economic times.
"It's always been true that, in times of recession, folks in the middle class are more generous in giving as a share of their income because they're more likely to know someone who needs help."
The Rev. Edward Lambro, director of development for Catholic Charities in Paterson, said middle-class donors responded generously to his group's requests for donations from the outset of the recession.
"We found that starting when things were at their worst, middle-class givers were very consistent in their support," he said. Like Toronto, Lambro believes those donors were driven by a feeling of empathy with people who were hit hardest by the economy.
"There is this sense of shared difficulty," Lambro noted. "People realized their neighbors were in trouble. There was also a lot of gratitude among people who hadn't lost their jobs and sympathy for those who had."
Elizabeth Mason, chief operating officer of Children's Aid and Family Services in Paramus, said one change she noticed among middle-class donors was that they went through a winnowing process, focusing their donations on fewer organizations they most wanted to support but keeping their philanthropy at previous levels or even increasing it.
"People who still had the wherewithal to give were much more thoughtful about who they wanted to give to," Mason said.
Toronto said he wasn't surprised that wealthy donors cut their giving so dramatically.
"For the wealthy, they were very fearful because their assets had depreciated and they feared how far the economy might fall," he said. "As a consequence, folks reined in their giving."
Because the United Way's main focus in the past several years has been on developing affordable housing for the poor and disabled, Toronto's fundraising attention has been turning more and more to major donors. He thinks that despite the slumping economy, wealthy givers' attitudes are beginning to change.
"We're in that arena now of seeking major gifts. Those are long conversations to develop relationships," he said. "We're seeing some very early indications of some sense of restoration there, some signs of getting back to pre-2008 levels."
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