Nov. 28, 2006 — -- There are a million ways to give to charity. Toy drives, food drives, school supply drives…telethons, walkathons, and dance-athons.
But just who is doing the giving? Three quarters of American families donate to charity, giving $1,800 each, on average. Of course, if three quarters give, that means that one quarter don't give at all. So what distinguishes those who give from those who don't? It turns out there are many myths about that.
We assume the rich give more than the middle class, the middle class more than the poor. I've heard liberals care more about the less fortunate, so we assume they give more than conservatives do. Are these assumptions truth, or myth?
To test what types of people give more, "20/20" went to two very different parts of the country, with contrasting populations: Sioux Falls, S.D. and San Francisco, Calif. The Salvation Army set up buckets at the busiest locations in each city -- Macy's in San Francisco and Wal-Mart in Sioux Falls. Which bucket collected more money?
Sioux Falls is rural and religious; half of the population goes to church every week. People in San Francisco make much more money, are predominantly liberal, and just 14 percent of people in San Francisco attend church every week. Liberals are said to care more about helping the poor; so did people in San Francisco give more?
It turns out that this idea that liberals give more…is a myth. Of the top 25 states where people give an above average percent of their income, 24 were red states in the last presidential election.
Arthur Brooks, the author of "Who Really Cares," says that "when you look at the data, it turns out the conservatives give about 30 percent more." He adds, "And incidentally, conservative-headed families make slightly less money."
And he says the differences in giving goes beyond money, pointing out that conservatives are 18 percent more likely to donate blood. He says this difference is not about politics, but about the different way conservatives and liberals view government.
"You find that people who believe it's the government's job to make incomes more equal, are far less likely to give their money away," Brooks says. In fact, people who disagree with the statement, "The government has a basic responsibility to take care of the people who can't take care of themselves," are 27 percent more likely to give to charity.
The second myth is that the people with the most money are the most generous. You'd think they'd be. After all, the rich should have the most to spare and households with incomes exceeding $1 million (about 7 percent of the population) make 50 percent of all charitable donations.
But while the rich do give more in overall dollars, according to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, people at the lower end of the income scale give almost 30 percent more of their income.
Many researchers told us lower income people give more because they think they are more likely to need charity or know someone who needs charity.
Laurie Tanner is one of those people. She says, "I remember a time when honestly, I couldn't afford a gallon of milk for my son. And I had a good friend that stepped in and helped me, and I've never forgotten that."
The United Way helped Vincent Lau when he was a teenager. Now he donates to them. "I'm glad to help, " Lau says.
Workers at the meat packing plant where Lau works make on average around $35,000, yet the Sioux Falls United Way says it gets more contributions of over $500 from employees here than anywhere else.
Another employee at the plant, B.J. Motley, has a wife and four kids to support, but he gives part of his paycheck to charity every week
"My mom always says 'it's always good to give,'" he says. "[I've] got a great family and I've been blessed."
And what about the middle class? Well, while middle-income Americans are generous compared to people in other countries, compared to the rich and the working poor, they give less. "The two most generous groups in America are the rich and the working poor," says Brooks. "The middle class give the least."
Finally, the single biggest predictor of whether someone will be charitable is their religious participation.
Religious people are more likely to give to charity, and when they give, they give more money: four times as much. And Arthur Brooks told me that giving goes beyond their own religious organization:
"Actually, the truth is that they're giving to more than their churches," he says. "The religious Americans are more likely to give to every kind of cause and charity, including explicitly non-religious charities."
And almost all of the people who gave to our bell ringers in San Francisco and Sioux Falls said they were religious or spiritual.
So how did our little test turn out? Tune into a special edition of "20/20," "Cheap in America," to find out.