Throughout the history of the United States, the richest nation in modern history, its abundance of wealth has triggered a sense of social responsibility, as well as a belief that control over wealth involves not ownership or entitlement but temporary custody. Custody of that bounty compels Americans to give back to individual communities and protect the less fortunate.
Charity and good works, however, don’t rank as the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and the prosperous in the U.S. According to The World Giving Index – an annual report produced by the United Kingdom-based Charities Aid Foundation – America ranked as the home of the most generous people of any country between 2009 and 2018, considering monetary donations, voluntarism and aid to strangers. The 2019 Giving USA report – issued by the eponymous Chicago-based foundation – confirms that charitable giving in the U.S. in 2018 totaled $427.7 billion.
In today’s world, unfortunately, the rush to gain new wealth and increase financial worth can overshadow the importance of societal responsibility to give time and effort. Such overshadowing is taking place even as the middle class continues to shrink and large pockets of poverty are growing in many communities across America, particularly in the wake of the disappearance of good-paying manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt and elsewhere in the Midwest. The gulf yawning between corporate executives’ compensation and their employees’ clearly exemplifies the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
A nation with a large populace suffering from poverty and economic inequality doesn’t really qualify as prosperous; instead, it’s primed for unrest. Although financial prosperity may create a monetarily independent person, it doesn’t necessarily make a better person – and it doesn’t make a better society.
Although uncertainty still surrounds the long-term effect of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, an estimated 21 million fewer Americans claimed a charitable tax deduction for 2018 than previously. With charitable donations no longer exempt and a lessened tax incentive to give, fewer Americans may donate, and donations from those who do may shrink.
What does prosperity mean? What if we defined prosperity by those we lift up, those we make stronger and those we enable to create their own prosperity and, in turn, pay it forward? Our measurement and definition of prosperity’s value added should be anchored on that very old triune measurement – time, talent and treasures.
Benjamin Ola. Akande is assistant vice chancellor for international affairs-Africa at Washington University in St. Louis. Abass Babatunde is a graduate fellow at the Brown School there.