Are Americans Cheap? Or Charitable?

Do you give? Or are you cheap? I keep hearing that "Americans are cheap."

The New York Times asks in an editorial, "Are we cheap?"

"Yes," they say. Former President Carter recently said the rich states "don't give a damn" about people in poor countries. And when it comes to helping the needy in poor countries, U2 singer Bono says, "It's the crumbs off our tables that we offer these countries."

Crumbs because many other countries, such as Norway, Portugal and Japan, give a larger share of their wealth to needy countries.

The United States gave out $28 billion in foreign aid last year, but as a percentage of our wealth, we rank 20th out of the 22 major donor countries.

Actress Angelina Jolie is horrified by it.

"It's disgusting. It really is disgusting," she said. "I think most American people, you know, really do think we give more. And I know that they would if they could understand how little they give and how much more we can afford to give, absolutely, without even noticing it."

Generous Americans?

But wait a second. … When talking aid, why just talk about what the government gives?

Jolie could look to herself as an example of the generous American. She gives her time and her money to charities around the world. So do millions of other Americans. … America is not just our government. America is 300 million individuals, and their contributions far exceed what government gives.

America is anything but cheap.

Carol Adelman at the Hudson Institute has studied how much Americans give privately in foreign aid. She says it's a myth that Americans are stingy.

"We're one of the most generous people in the world, and that's because of our private philanthropy," she said.

Adelman published her findings in the institute's "Index of Global Philanthropy," which found that while the U.S. government gave about $28 billion in foreign aid in 2005, privately, Americans gave $33.5 billion.

On top of that, immigrants in America send about $62 billion abroad to family members and home towns. That's anything but stingy.

"Americans give abroad like they do domestically, through their private institutions," Adelman said.

After the tsunami three years ago, the U.S. government pledged approximately $900 million to relief efforts, but American individuals gave $2 billion in food, clothing and cash.

Many private charities could barely keep up with the donations.

'No Other Country Comes Close'

The fact that most of America's charitable gifts come from volunteers, not government, demonstrates that Americans are different from people in every other country.

"No other country comes close," said Arthur Brooks, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University. Brooks studies charitable giving and has a new book, "Who Really Cares: America's Charity Divide."

"The fact is that Americans give more than the citizens of any other country. … They also volunteer more," Brooks said. "Americans per capita individually give about three and a half times more money per year, than the French per capita. … Seven times more than the Germans and 14 times more than the Italians."

"Now, you might notice that these other countries have different average incomes or different tax systems," he said. "But even when you take that into account, Americans give 10 times more than the Italians. The fact is, that Americans give on a different scale than anybody else in the world."

The Men in Blue

Thank goodness we do because charity does it better. I notice the difference on my way to work because in my neighborhood, the men in blue -- that's what they call themselves -- clean the streets.

Who are they, I wondered? They say they are ready, willing and able, and they do this menial work energetically.

They're not volunteers. It turns out that they're former street people. … Ex-alcoholics and drug addicts. The Doe Fund, a private charity, puts them to work while they try to teach them to be responsible and to stay clean.

One year after entering the program, most of the men in blue are drug-free and employed. That's twice the success rate of other shelters in the city.

William Hurst went through eight different rehab programs before this charity taught him the self-respect you get from work.

"I respect myself again, I'm drug-free. After I completed the drug counseling, they put me out in the field immediately. … And to me, that's the most important thing, staying clean and working," he said.

I'm still not sure exactly what makes this charity so successful, but it clearly has discovered … something.

I've never seen government workers do work like this -- with this kind of enthusiasm

"I enjoy doing what I do. It just keeps me motivated," said Allen Corey Funderburg, another trainee.

Nazerine Griffin, one of the supervisors and an ex-addict, said simply, "Private funders do it better."

Private Charities

That's why I donate money to that charity and to Central Park, where, full disclosure, I'm a director of the charity that's helped clean it up.

About 20 years ago, the park was in terrible disrepair. The lawns were barren and eroding.

Buildings were covered with graffiti. The government kept promising to restore it, but never did.

Yet now, the park is beautiful. Central Park is now the No. 2 tourist destination in New York City. … Because our private charity now manages the park, and pays for most of its upkeep.

One more example.

In Namibia, in West Africa, a country ravaged by the AIDS crisis, many orphans were being neglected, even though the country got $161 million in foreign aid from the U.S. government.

A little church in Maryland decided it should help. Members of the Mount Zion United Methodist Church decided that they'd use their own money to build and fund an orphanage, The Children of Zion Village, in Namibia.

Today, the children, many of whom lived on the streets -- one little boy was found living in a tire -- are safe and smiling and going to school.

Now church members fly from Maryland to Africa to volunteer at the orphanage, and meet the child they sponsored.

"The children know who their sponsor is. … And so there's a relationship there. We're a family," said Rebecca Mink, who runs the Namibian orphanage.

That's charity working the uniquely American way.

Regardless of what our government does, Americans are anything but cheap.

Americans gave $300 billion away in charity last year -- that's about $1,000 per person.

This story originally aired on December 1, 2006.