Here's one way that God-fearing politicians in Congress can increase church attendance: eliminate or sharply reduce tax breaks for charitable contributions.
That's right -- do the opposite of what seems intuitively obvious. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber says he has found a direct correlation between religious attendance and the size of charitable giving, but it doesn't work the way you might think.
Gruber's research shows that the more people contribute to their place of worship or religiously oriented charitable groups, the less likely they are to go to services, holding constant such things as income, race, gender and other factors known to be associated with charitable giving. Economists call this "substitution" -- people apparently feel that giving money is a legitimate substitution for going to church.
Gruber analyzed data from the General Social Survey conducted annually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which includes measures of church attendance, as well as from the federal government's quarterly Consumer Expenditure Survey, which includes information on giving to both religious and nonreligious charitable organizations.
He found that a 10 percent increase in charitable giving led to an 11 percent decline in religious attendance. A doubling of current charitable subsidies in the form of new tax breaks for giving "would lead to a fall in religious attendance of as much as 3.6 percent from its 2000 levels," he predicted in a paper released recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Gruber also found that larger tax subsidies for charitable giving encouraged more charitable giving. "Each percentage increase in the charitable subsidy raises giving by almost $5.25," he found.
So taken together, his findings suggest that increasing the tax break on charitable giving would enrich the coffers of religious groups and charities but empty out the pews. Right, professor?
"Not quite 'empty the pews' -- that's a bit too strong," Gruber said, laughing. "But this does have interesting policy implications. You'd think that church attendance and donating to charity would work hand-in-hand. My research suggests they work against each other."
But why does increased charitable giving correlate with lower religious participation?
"That's the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question," Gruber says.
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