Yesterday NPR discussed the results of a new study on charitable giving by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  The study affirmed that lower income people give a larger percentage of their income to charity, but also discovered that how much wealthy people give is strongly correlated with the type of neighborhood they live in.

It turns out that wealthy people who live mostly with other wealthy people give the least amount of money to charity, on average.  Here are five zip codes with high-densities of rich people according to the IRS (= % of “wealthy filers”) and the percent of their incomes that they donated to charity (= “percent given”):

In contrast, here are five zip codes with a great deal of economic diversity.  In this case, the far right column shows a dramatic increase in the percent of their incomes that they donate to charity:

Wow, so rich people in Manhattan donate less than 1% of their income to charity, whereas the rich in Brooklyn give 35%.  That’s a pretty amazing divergence!


There are (at least) three explanations for this finding.   One is that living in a diverse neighborhood makes you more inclined to give, whatever your inclination before moving there.  Another is it that generous rich people move to diverse neighborhoods and stingy rich people isolate themselves.   A third is that some other variable (e.g., political affiliation, religiosity) is correlated with both neighborhood preference and generosity.

A social psychologist interviewed by, Paul Piff, suggests that it’s the first explanation.  Rich people tend to be isolated, he says, so they just don’t notice that other people need help. But, if they see need, they do show compassion.

I’m sure Piff knows his stuff, but if I had the opportunity to follow up with him on this argument, I’d ask him more about what he means by “see.”  It seems to me that anyone that reads the news these days will be exposed to plenty of evidence of economic need and, if you care enough to dig for it a little bit, you’ll find stunning data documenting income inequality and heart-rending stories of widespread suffering.  It may be easy to be isolated, but I imagine one would have to at least occasionally turn a blind eye to these things.

But perhaps knowledge about need isn’t sufficient; perhaps we only “see” need when we come into direct contact with human beings, the ones with who become familiar to us. There is evidence that we find it easy to blame strangers for their misfortune, but chock it up to bad luck when it’s us, our friends, or our families.  So perhaps raising consciousness about poverty isn’t enough, perhaps we really do need to get the rich to rub elbows with the disadvantaged.

In any case, the results are pretty impressive and no doubt have some wide-ranging implications for how to make us a more compassionate and generous society.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.