Right Opinion

Politicians Who Don't Give

Jeff Jacoby · Jul. 31, 2020

One of my litmus tests for political candidates is generosity. Other things being equal, I’m inclined to vote for candidates who are prepared to spend money on worthy causes.

To spend their own money, that is.

Many would-be presidents, senators, and representatives are voluble on the subject of “generosity” when they are talking about the ways in which they want the government to spend public funds. As Senator Ed Markey runs for reelection, for example, he has plenty to say on his campaign website about all the money he has been instrumental in redirecting from the taxpayers who earned it to other recipients and purposes — such as the $200 million he backed for the creation of a flu vaccine, or the $5 billion of annual investment in intercity passenger rail projects, or the $25 million for gun violence research, or the $36.5 billion for critical relief in Puerto Rico. There is even a “Markey Map,” on which voters are invited to “search to see how Ed Markey has delivered for your community.”

But I derive no insight into Markey’s character or qualifications for service from a litany of all the ways he arranges to spend money that he doesn’t work for. By my lights, there is no virtue in voting to appropriate funds from the public treasury. I look for evidence of compassion or benevolence not in how openhanded Markey is in giving away our money, but in how liberally he gives away his own.

This month, Markey released his tax returns for the last seven years, which makes it possible to draw some conclusions on that score. They aren’t very inspiring.

From 2013 through 2019, Markey’s annual adjusted gross income totaled $1,248,441, or an average of just over $178,300 per year. (His wife’s tax returns were filed separately). Over those seven years, he donated a grand total of $49,756 to charity, for a yearly average of $7,100. As a percentage of his adjusted gross income, Markey gave 3.9% to charity. That share would have been even lower had Markey not dramatically increased his charitable donations in 2018 and 2019, as he was gearing up to run for reelection.

Representative Joe Kennedy III, who is challenging Markey in the Democratic primary, has an even less impressive record of charitable giving. Kennedy and his wife released tax returns covering six years, during which their joint adjusted gross income totaled $2,093,460, for an annual average of $348,910. Over the course of those six years, the Kennedys donated $49,597 to charity. That amounted to only 2.3% of their very substantial personal income from 2013 through 2018.

Of course there is no requirement that Markey, Kennedy, or any other public official give anything to charity. I’m glad that they give something. And in fairness, there are politicians who give far, far less. Representative Richard Neal, the “dean” of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently released eight years worth of his tax returns. They show that from 2011 through 2018, he earned more than $1.9 million in income, yet he donated a grand total of just $7,750 to charity — a paltry four-10ths of 1% of his earnings. As he campaigns for reelection, Neal has been talking up all the funds he has directed to his Western Massachusetts district from Washington, DC. To my mind, it says far more about Neal that he gives such negligible amounts of his own money to charities that help the poor, the sick, or the homeless.

Neal isn’t alone, unfortunately. Many prominent politicians give little to charity — which doesn’t stop many of them from lecturing Americans about the greed of the “billionaire class” or the need for more government spending to show “compassion.” On the other hand, some politicians give great swaths of their income to charity as a matter of course. Mitt Romney’s tax returns, for instance, have consistently documented levels of philanthropic giving far above the norm, not just in dollar terms but as a percentage of income. When Barack Obama was in the White House, his charitable giving topped $1 million.

For millions of Americans, charitable giving is a regular household expense — they would no more neglect to spend money on worthwhile philanthropic causes than they would overlook their rent payment or the grocery bill. I find that attitude entirely normal. I grew up watching many of the adults in my world give some coins to charity every day without fail. In the elementary school my siblings and I attended, kids were taught from an early age about the importance of giving to help others, and we would contribute our pennies daily when the charity box made the rounds.

I understand why politicians brag about how much money they have extracted from the government for this or that program. But when I want to form an opinion of a candidate’s character, I find it much more illuminating to consider how much they have extracted from their own pockets. Or haven’t.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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