Are Religious Parts Of The US More Charitable?

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It’s a county-level map of charitable giving. Holy cow, that’s a gold mine. But sometimes I see little data nuggets like this and I just can’t track down where the data comes from — or if I can find the data source, it’s not accessible to the average person. So, that ends my search. This one unfolded a bit differently.

I googled “Charitable Giving by County in 2013,” and I found the image again. But this time it had been posted on Reddit — 5 years ago. A quick scroll through the comments is the usual stuff about how this map is flawed because it includes giving to churches and that’s not really charity because they use their money to buy jets. (For the record, I think that Reddit is probably the most anti-religion social network right now).

But one of the comments was from the person who made that map. Hallelujah. They linked to the story where the map first appears in the Sacramento Bee and then they also added a link to the data source. We have lift off.

I downloaded the data and started poking around. Of course it’s government data and all the variables are labeled in an indecipherable way, so I had to find the codebook. (This is why I use the same data sources over and over again, by the way — I don’t have to waste time looking up variable names). And I have something to share with you.

But before I replicate the map you see above, we have to take a huge detour into a change in the tax code. I know, exciting, right?

In 2017, Congress passed a bill called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which did a whole bunch of things. The one that is most pertinent to this discussion is that it significantly raised the standard deduction. In 2016, it was $6,300 for single filers and $12,600 for those who were married and filing jointly. In 2017, those numbers jumped to $12,000 and $24,000, respectively. And they continue to creep up every year (they are $13,850 and $27,700 in 2023, for instance).

What does this have to do with charitable giving? A ton. One of the benefits of giving to a charity is that it reduces your income, and thus you pay a lower amount in taxes. However, there’s a big caveat with that. When filing taxes you have two choices — take the standard deduction or itemize your deductions. You should itemize only if all your items add up to more than the standard deduction. Those things include expenses related to education, health care and (you guessed it) charitable giving.

So, unless all the itemized deductions are north of $27,700 for a couple filing in 2023 — they should just take the standard deduction and move on. You know what that means? A whole lot fewer tax returns have any charitable contributions listed now than was the case back in 2013 because very few people give away so much money that they can itemize. The Tax Foundation reported that in 2016, about 80% of people making between $100K and $500K itemized. That share dropped to 32% by 2018.

The upshot of all of this is simple — we have way less data on the amount given to charity now than we did before the tax laws changed. That was something I had to figure out how to get around.





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