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Residents of Politically Divided Counties Give Less to Charity

New research finds higher levels of philanthropy in ideologically homogeneous areas.

Americans are increasingly choosing to live in places where their neighbors share their political beliefs. It's a problematic trend, in that it's easier to demonize people we don't come in contact with. But it may produce at least one positive outcome.

New research finds citizens of ideologically homogeneous counties tend to give more to charity.

The consequences of political polarization are beginning to "spill over into other facets of life, including our charitable giving," lead author Rob Christensen of Brigham Young University said in announcing the findings. "The more political competition in a county, the more suspicion there seems to be in how we spend our charitable dollars."

The study, in the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, examined the relationship between taxation, political affiliation, and charitable giving. The research team, led by Laurie Paarlberg, analyzed county-level tax data from the Internal Revenue Service, and compared it to how residents voted in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

They also measured how politically competitive a given county is, as measured by the share of the vote that went to each political party, and estimated the state and local tax burden as a percentage of average income.

"We find that political competition directly affects philanthropy," the researchers report. "Giving tends to be higher in counties where one political party or the other dominates the electoral process. As political competition increases, philanthropic giving decreases."

Why? They note that "a broad body of literature suggests community diversity decreases altruistic behavior," because, under those conditions, it is more difficult "to develop the shared values and trust necessary for working together to provide collective goods." Perhaps in response, such counties also have higher taxes, as government assumes more of the burden of paying for community needs.

The study also produced other intriguing findings. It reports Republicans tend to give more to charity than Democrats—but only in counties where their party is in power, and their tax burden is lower. Republicans living in Democrat-dominated counties apparently chafe at their relatively high taxes, and give less money in response.

To Christensen, this finding "supports the notion that conservative communities prefer to redistribute resources through private rather than public efforts."

He adds that, when you combine the local tax burden and charitable giving, heavily Democratic counties contribute more to the common good. So which party is more virtuous is in the eye of the beholder.

Either way, if you live in an area that isn't reliably red or blue, you might want to rethink your level of charitable giving. Without meaning to, you may be shirking your social responsibility.

Rather than holding back due to distrust of your neighbors, think of it as an apolitical way to create a better community.