Boston’s most charitable neighborhoods mix rich and poor

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BOSTON – It’s the season of giving, but to what extent Hub residents respond appears to vary widely from one neighborhood to another, with the wealthiest giving the most while donation ratios in some of the poorest quarters easily outstrip those of their more well-off neighbors.

And that’s even when considering when donations are looked at as a ratio of income. Topping the list are residents in the neighborhoods around Harvard Square in Cambridge and the Prudential Center in Boston’s Back Bay, which gave 5.47 and 5.30 percent, respectively, of their disposable incomes to charity in 2012, the most recent year for which such figures are available. Next are the Financial and Wharves districts, sections of Chestnut Hill that include bits of Boston and Newton as well as Brookline, and Beacon Hill – all contributing at rates between 4.46 and 5.24 percent. But some parts of Roxbury, with much lower median incomes, weren’t far behind.

That people who live in neighborhoods where incomes are lower are nonetheless generous isn’t unusual, according to Karl Zinsmeister, a vice president at the Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of philanthropists and foundations. “Only about a third of low-income individuals give any money at all in a year,” he wrote in Philanthropy magazine in 2013. “But those who are givers tend to be extremely generous, with a third or half of them giving at least 5 percent of their income.”

The data on Boston and Bay State counties were taken from federal tax returns and analyzed by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a national publication based in the Washington area which has created a database of charitable giving that is searchable by state, county, city, town, or ZIP code. It can be used to pinpoint figures at roughly the neighborhood level.

The New Boston Post sifted the available data for all neighborhoods in Boston, Cambridge and Brookline. In some ZIP codes, there were too few filers for the Internal Revenue Service to clear the data for release because of privacy concerns. Such exclusions – plus the fact that only charitable deductions that are itemized are counted – has sparked sharp criticism from some philanthropy experts who say the data leave much to be desired in terms of portraying a complete picture of local giving, including by lower income residents and renters who often don’t itemize.

Nonetheless, the Chronicle of Philanthropy database is the only one of its kind available publicly. The snapshot, such as it is, points to an interesting pattern: The more one makes, the more one gives – not in terms of absolute dollars but as a proportion of income.

For example, the typical resident of the Fenway area of Boston has $133,458 in discretionary income when certain essential expenses are discounted. The whole neighborhood, which includes the Longwood Medical Area and the East Fens, reported about $620 million in discretionary income – which is what’s left over when certain essential expenses are discounted – and donated about $16.9 million to various charitable causes. Overall, the neighborhood had a giving ratio of 2.73 percent.

That’s markedly lower than Beacon Hill residents, who, with a median discretionary income of $477,728, not only donated more – an estimated $62.3 million in all – but also did so at a higher rate of 4.46 percent of income.

But it’s not only the wealthy that give at high rates. Data that were available for 38 neighborhoods in and around Boston indicate that not only the wealthiest, but those at the bottom of the income ladder donate at the highest rates.

For example, the Grove Hall area of Roxbury, where the median tax filer’s disposable income is a comparatively low $53,621, gives at a rate of 4.42 percent. That’s well above most of Brookline, where median incomes range between $141,386 and $235,397 but giving is at 2.54 and 3.14 percent, respectively. Grove Hall even surpasses Nantucket Island, at 3.47 percent.

Such results are consistent with what some national philanthropy advocates see. For example, in a recent article, Zinsmeister describes the pattern of giving as being U-shaped: the upper tips represent those at the top and bottom of the income scale who give higher shares of their earnings than those in the middle.

“If you measure charitable donations as a fraction of the donor’s income, giving is most robust at the top and bottom of the earnings spectrum,” Zinsmeister wrote. He says the surprising generosity of lower income residents could be explained by levels of religious involvement.

Of course, the wealthy are not equally generous. Those that tend to live in mixed-income areas, elbow to elbow with the non-rich, tend to contribute more, the group says.

But local philanthropy experts strongly caution against concluding much from the data. Jon Bakija, an economist at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, who has studied philanthropic giving, says the Chronicle of Philanthropy results are skewed and misleading because it only includes giving reported on federal tax returns. Taxpayers who don’t itemize because the standard deduction saves them more on their tax returns don’t report their charitable donations at all and consequently what they give is left out, Bajika says. Often, lower income filers are better off taking the standard deduction than itemizing.

“In very high-income neighborhoods in Massachusetts, almost everyone itemizes, among other reasons because Massachusetts has an income tax which will push itemized deductions above the standard deduction for very high-income people. So the data for very high-income neighborhoods is reasonably reliable,” Bakija said. When combined with things like mortgage interest, state and local taxes paid often push higher-income filers into itemizing to save money.

But not so for low- to middle-income neighborhoods, he said, where only a “small fraction of people itemize and those people are disproportionately people with unusually large charitable donations.”

Paul Schervish, a retired sociologist and former director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, likewise raises questions about the accuracy of the Chronicle’s data. He expressed concern that some of the wealthiest contributors were left out of some datasets. He also cautioned strongly against reading too much into differences between one neighborhood and another: at such a small level, he said, one large gift from an individual could distort the whole picture.

One other wrinkle: those reporting lower incomes are not necessarily poor. They include retirees, business owners who do not draw large salaries, and other people whose wealth is measured by more than just the amount of their paycheck. That too might explain the apparent high rates of giving among some with low-incomes, according to the Philanthropy Roundtable.

At the county level, the data paints a more accurate picture, the experts say. For Massachusetts, it shows that what makes the difference in giving appears to be not so much one’s income as where one lives. The pattern that emerges is that those closer to the coast and Boston give at overwhelmingly higher rates than the rest of the state.

For example, residents of Suffolk County, which encompasses Boston, had a median discretionary income of $89,399 and overall contributed 4.15 percent of that to charity. In terms of income, Bristol County, which includes Fall River and New Bedford on the South Coast, is comparable, with a median of $86,603. But the proportion donated was a paltry 1.52 percent, the lowest of all Massachusetts counties.

When it comes to looking for charitable contributions, location is less relevant to the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley than other factors, said Brigid Boyd, a spokeswoman. She said the organization focuses on identifying what motivates individual donors. She said United Way has found three reasons.

First, some give because they want to ensure their donations “support organizations that are effective” and can do the most with their dollars. Then there are those who have personal ties to United Way. “They like to give to United Way… because their friends and colleagues are involved and they feel they are part of a larger movement in the community,” Boyd said.

But the third reason does have a geographical element: “They give because they want the impact of their donations to be local. Donations to our United Way go directly to organizations and initiatives in our region,” Boyd said.

One factor that may distinguish one area from another is the density of charities. A city with a number of charitable organizations constantly calling on people to give does have an effect, according to Schervish. So does the extent to which someone is involved in their community: a soccer mom or dad, he said, is more likely to chip in to a good local cause than someone who doesn’t have those connections.

A number of other factors also move donors, according to Schervish. High rates of religious attendance and higher levels of education also lead to higher rates of giving. The list of factors that influence someone to donate is rounded out with two obvious ones: higher incomes and greater financial security.

Ultimately, demographics will only tell you so much. Beyond those factors, Schervish says there are other explanations behind individual giving. One is a profound experience or moment in life, which can dramatically alter a person’s outlook on money and wealth. Schervish calls these “mobilizing experiences.”

He cites the example of caring for someone, such as aging relative or younger children: “They have this experience of being nourished themselves when they nourish others and that mobilizes giving.”

Giving by county

The interactive map below shows the proportion of discretionary income that taxpayers reported giving to charity. Hover over a county to see the data from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which collected the information from Internal Revenue Service data.


Generosity in the Hub

The interactive map below includes Boston, Cambridge, Brookline and the Chestnut Hill area, broken down by ZIP code to show the level of giving in each neighborhood. Data from the Internal Revenue Service and collected by the Chronicle of Philanthropy leaves out some ZIP codes because there were too few returns to negate privacy concerns. Hover over a neighborhood to see the data for each one.