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Are the French Less Charitable than Americans? 

If you look at the stats, it seems Americans are far more generous than the French. According to the 2010 World Giving Index, France ranked 91 in charitable giving out of 153 countries surveyed, far behind the #5-ranked USA (Australia and New Zealand tied for first).

It would be easy to surmise from this that the French are a bunch of stingy “none for all and all for me” humbugs. I’ve certainly said that a few times myself when my own attempt to make a living has been interrupted by their protest marches and strikes to protect their comfy public sector retirement benefits.

But even I have to admit that this survey doesn’t reveal the full picture. I can’t argue with the donation figure or the hours of volunteer work, but I think the French are actually inherently more generous than Americans.

First, let’s look at the incentives for charitable giving and volunteer work. In the United States, all charitable donations (up to 50% of adjusted gross income) are 100% tax deductible. This encourages the rich to donate considerable chunks of their fortunes, à la Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates, and Zuckerman. In France, only 75% of donations up to €513.00 are tax deductible by individuals. They can deduct up to 66% on amounts over that, but donations are capped at 20% of their adjusted gross income. Even worse, French companies can only deduct 60% of donations up to 0.5% of their annual revenue.

Despite this, it’s interesting to note that in France, these charitable donations must be for “humanitarian organizations” according to the Loi Coluche (named for the founder of the Restos du Coeur food banks). Yet the author of an article in Stanford University's Social Innovation Review titled “A Failure of Philanthropy” argues that American philanthropy does more to benefit elite schools, concert halls and religious groups than to help the poor. In any case, the real questions remains: would Americans give less if the tax incentives disappeared? Would the French give more if the ceiling on donations was raised?

And the incentive for volunteer work? Growing up in the US, it was drilled into me and my classmates that it was essential to do a significant amount of community service to get into good universities. And at university, we were told it would “look good on your résumé”. I don’t want to imply that I think this is the only reason people volunteer. I certainly did enough volunteer work that I never needed to show on any résumé (primarily because working for myself means I don’t have one). But I still remember in college, during a Spring Break volunteer week at a Habitat for Humanity building site, that the students from another university couldn’t believe we chose to spend our vacations on dusty construction sites. They were required to do it for graduation credit. And they clearly would not have done it otherwise.  

And I clearly remember my surprise when I realized that the French students did not have the same “education”. It would be considered very strange to put volunteer work on one’s résumé unless it was directly related to the job you were applying to (ie: it might help to mention you spent every weekend for four years building houses for the poor if you were applying for a construction job). For me, this shows that the French volunteer their time simply because they want to, not because it makes them look good. Would as many Americans volunteer their time if it didn’t somehow “pay off” on their college or job application?

Another issue to consider is the high percentage of French income that goes directly to the “Social Net”. The French “give” a larger part of their salaries to charity in the form of the high social charges and taxes that pay for public healthcare, housing, child care, education, etc. Many of these public services still don’t exist in the US at anywhere near the level they do in France (I won’t get into healthcare here, but I can tell you the most expensive Grand Ecoles in Paris still only cost €4000-€7000/year; regular public universities cost €300-€700/year). I think this creates a feeling among the French that they are contributing to the well-being of the general public simply by paying their taxes know as “charges sociales”. Why donate more money to charitable associations when you already “gave at the office”?

And don’t forget the post-Revolutionary motto of the French Republic: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. That last one, Fraternity, has nothing to do with Greek university clubs. To the French, it symbolizes solidarity within the community. The French, Parisians in particular, can sometimes seem like they’re cold and heartless, rude and self-absorbed, but I have witnessed more instances of true fraternity and solidarity in this city than I ever saw growing up in the US. In every neighborhood I’ve lived in Paris, there has been a resident homeless person. The locals “adopt” them, bringing them food, blankets, coffee, and -- for better or worse -- sometimes even a bottle of wine. The same man has been living out of his sleeping bag on the corner where I go food shopping for the past six years. Once in awhile he asks me for a smoke, but usually he keeps to himself and bothers no one. The police (who are right across the street) never ask him to “move along”. None of the residents mutter “get a job” like they do where I grew up. This kind of generosity isn’t measurable by counting monetary donations or volunteer hours.

Okay, let’s say it’s easy to take care of your own, but what about illegal immigrants? Many of the debates I hear against public health care in the United Sates focus on the idea that illegal immigrants will be able to access health benefits. That doesn’t sound very charitable coming from the richest, most powerful country in the world. If you are an immigrant without papers in France (they call them “sans papiers”, not “immigrés illégaux”), you can get access to the French healthcare system for just €30/year (and it was free until 2011, but due to the rising health care deficit they decided to ask for a token payment). The French can be just as rabidly xenophobic as Americans, but I didn’t see anyone in Paris marching on the streets against health care for impoverished illegal immigrants.

Finally, there’s a stigma in the US when it comes to the poor that doesn’t exist in France. In the book “Status Anxiety”, Swiss author Alain de Botton talks about the inherent “merit” system for success in the US. I think this applies to charitable giving, as well. Victims of natural disasters or terrorism “deserve” our help. Those without health insurance who become ill, can’t work, and end up on the streets are “lazy bums”. In France, a 2009 survey by the Institut CSA found that over half of French people feel that they might one day end up on the street and need help. Perhaps this is just a sign of their inherent pessimism, but it also translates into empathy and a certain generosity of spirit towards those they see begging on the streets. There is no judgment. I’ve had many French people tell me they don’t mind paying the high taxes that bankroll generous unemployment benefits, because “Maybe one day I’ll lose my job, too.”

When it comes to charitable giving one could argue it’s the result, not the intent, which counts. But when it comes to measuring generosity and making judgments about who is charitable and who is not, I vote that compassion and genuine empathy for those who are less fortunate than ourselves should count just as much for the well-being of the world as “calculable” cash and time donations. And with that in mind, I think the French are just as charitable as Americans.

What do you think?

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Reader Comments (9)

I agree, there are a lot of reasons that play into this disparity in charitable giving --- the financial incentives and social support network (which everyone automatically funds through their taxes) are major factors. And I also agree that the difference shouldn't be interpreted to mean that the French are just uncharitable. But by the same token, I think it's wrong to imply that Americans are giving just because it benefits themselves. Federal employees in the US just set a record for charitable giving, in the midst of a recession and facing a potential shutdown that could furlough them for an indeterminate amount of time. As for doing it to build a resume, this may hold true in high school or college. But here's the thing: the number of people in the U.S. under 25 who volunteer is 1/5 the number of those over 25. People with families and jobs don't volunteer by accident or on spring break -- they do it because they want to. There are good explanations of the disparity, and I don't think they depend on counter-bashing Americans, so why go there?
February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBetsy
Hi Betsy,
Thanks for your feedback. Perhaps I could have worded things a bit differently to avoid seeming like I'm bashing my own country. However I am trying to make the argument that the disparity between the two countries would possibly disappear if the fiscal laws and educational "requirements" were the same. I'm sure there are as many French people who don't donate because they don't care as there are Americans only donating because of tax or career benefits.
But perhaps there are other reasons for the disparity, as well. I'd love it if you share your own ideas with us.
February 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterHeather Stimmler-Hall
Speaking strictly for myself, I have always believed that any charitable giving should be done quietly and without fanfare. If some people give money simply to get their names on a plaque or a building (or to get their pictures in the newspaper), so be it. The main point is that the money (or whatever) is hopefully going somewhere it is needed.
Now then, about immigration. I am completely in favor of LEGAL immigration. After all, we all originally came from somewhere else. All I would say to new immigrants is learn our language and our customs (which I am assuming is what you did when you moved to France). But that does not mean giving up customs you grew up with. It's what creates such a wonderful diversity.
Illegal immigration, however, is another thing entirely. We are being invaded and our government is too busy trying to be all things to all people to do anything about it. As a result, our social services are being overloaded to the breaking point. If the federal government would enforce existing immigration laws, there would be no need for the controversial Arizona law. The thing that really bothers me is that the time may soon come when the people of this country will say "enough, damn it." And then, sadly, things could start to get really ugly. I don't want that and I have a feeling you don't, either.
So to all immigrants, I would say welcome---but please do it legally. Is that too much to ask?
February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Stewart
Thanks for your comments Micheal. Immigration is another area where certain countries (mostly western) appear to be cruel and unjust towards illegal aliens, but immigration policy is a very complicated thing that touches so many aspects of the community (like healthcare). I personally am all for legal immigration, I certainly jumped through a million hoops for the right to live and work in France. I'm curious what the process is like for those trying to get an American Green Card. But that's a whole different conversation!
February 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterHeather Stimmler-Hall
March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRICHARD
Great article. It's been very interesting listening to the immigration debates. I'm not surprised that some people are reacting harshly to the perceived threat of immigration. They see their "culture" or way of life threatened. But fear causes us to make bad decisions. I'm really concerned by the anti-immigrant mentality in the U.S. It's not new to this country, but I'm worried that we'll make decisions that hurt us in the long run.

The questions you asked about charity were thought-provoking. The studies only give us a partial picture of the situation. We're very good at recognizing differences, but if we looked closer, I believe we'd find that we're more similar than we care to admit.

Keep up the good writing Heather.
March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Parrish
Hey Heather,

Given exactly equal situations, I don't doubt that the disparity in charitable giving would be smaller. I had mentally prepared a long discussion on the various factors, but I'll just skip to the main point. In the end, I think what rankles me is the implication at the end of your article that French apathy towards charitable giving equals genuine empathy towards the less fortunate while American generosity equals self-serving greed. I don't buy it. My experience growing up and living in the US doesn't match yours. I donate to charity and volunteer my time, and the thing is that there's nothing remarkable about that -- I know many people who do far far more. They're not rich and no-one is giving them credit beyond a thank-you. For the number of people whom you hear vocally condemning the homeless, there are legions more who quietly give them a cup of coffee, a metro card, or a hot lunch. I see it every day. And when I lived in France, I saw and heard plenty of people sneer at the SDFs and mutter that they were already getting plenty through the government and didn't need anything more.

I actually do think that beyond the financial and social network differences, there are some cultural differences at play, though they're hard to pin down. If you compare France to other countries with similarly robust -- and even more extensive -- social systems (take the Scandinavian countries, for example), there's still a huge disparity....

I realize I'm mostly repeating what I said earlier, and there's no need to post this comment or to reply. The American-bashing is something I'm hypersensitive to, though maybe not for the reasons you'd expect. I just returned from living in Paris for almost 5 years and I loved every minute of it. But one of the things that surprised and discouraged me when I was there was finding that the people who perpetuate the worst stereotypes of Americans are... Americans. The French were generally pretty open-minded, and especially younger French people. Maybe it's natural that we're most critical of ourselves, but all too often the generalizations I heard were based on really specific experience or just plain outdated information and assumptions. So you managed to hit a sore spot, but I don't mean to be so crabby about it....
March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBetsy
I loved the article as it articulates the fact that charity is more than how much money or property one gives. I would be interested is knowing where the US would rank if you excluded the billions that are given to the big universities, "pet projects", and churches. Have you ever visited a St Vincent de Paul or Salvation Army distribution center and seen what people drop off that they consider "charitable" donations? You'd be appalled. I've done just that on several occasions.... among items included rusting cake pans, Tupperware lids without the containers, wire hangers (I couldn't believe that one).

I think the main difference between charitable giving in the US and how it differs from Europe is that in the US we are pressured or made to feel guilty if we don't. Perfect example is United Way. Every year, I remember, when I worked at a large retailer, we were given a form to fill out to have a certain amount deducted from our pay checks. It was 3 years before I realized that it wasn't mandatory after all, but voluntary. The management just made it virtually impossible to elect not to have the deductions. This was one example. Being pressured into doing something takes the "volunteer" right out of charity giving, be it time, tangibles, or money. The former Soviet Union had "mandatory" days during the year where everyone worked for nothing -- considered charitable giving at the time. With that philosophy, that would have made Soviets the most charitable nation. And let's not forget that Mormons are REQUIRED to give 10% mainly to the church.... should that really be considered charitable giving???

I hate to be a pessimist but I think if laws in the US weren't as lucrative for charitable giving, there probably would be less giving. It's just my opinion - and I CERTAINLY hope that I am wrong!

Another thing that really bothers me about charitable giving in the US is how major givers tout and advertise their giving. Case in point, a few years ago I saw a commercial about Walmart boasting that it gave more than $85 million to charities. For God's sake, they're a $300 BILLION dollar a year company! Do the math. That came to .00028 of 1 percent of their revenues. That like a person making $100,000 a year boasting on his $28.33 donation during the year! Maybe it's just me, but that bothers me.

Finally, I know that millions of Americans are true givers from the heart and don't give a damn if it's tax deductible or not. I happen to be one of them as I frequently buy a an extra bag of groceries for a tenant in my building that can't afford much. It just makes me feel good inside that I can in a small way contribute to his having a better quality of life. When it comes down to it, society's charitable giving should not be measured by how big a college endowment one gives to Harvard, but how it takes care of its most destitute. Measured as such, I believe the French and Europeans are just as charitable (if not more) as Americans.

As a footnote: it's interesting that when economic times are tough, there's more giving that when times are riding high. Perhaps it simply because during bad times, most of us are more vulnerable to losing our jobs, homes, and nest eggs. It brings the need for giving closer to our door steps.

March 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick
Thank you for this post. I've been doing some research as to why in France it's so difficult for me to get contributions to my charity and this was quite enlightening.

I found a newer version of the World Giving Index here:
September 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

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