The other day, NPR ran a story about a recent study on charitable giving. It turns out that poorer people give a significantly larger percentage of their incomes to charity than do the wealthy. The report included interviews with people from some especially deprived neighborhoods, and the general import of their responses was empathetic: they knew first-hand how tough things can get, because they had experienced rough times first-hand.
The report made me think of a conversation a few years back with a Canadian colleague. I was curious about the differences in attitudes between Canada and the U.S. when it comes to the social safety net. Here are two countries with immensely similar histories and populations. We watch the same television programs, (mostly) speak the same language, and have remarkably similar popular cultures. Why, then, I asked, are American and Canadian attitudes so different when it comes to the need for programs guaranteeing access to healthcare? Why do the two countries have such different approaches to other social programs?
Her theory was intriguing: Canada is cold.Canada’s early settlers faced an environment that required them to share and co-operate with each other in order to survive. That reality produced a culture that recognizes the necessity and value of interdependence.
I have no idea whether my colleague’s theory is correct, but intuitively, it makes sense. And it helps to explain why people who have so little themselves seem more willing to share what they do have with their neighbors. Hardship reminds us of a truth we sometimes prefer to overlook: we’re all in this thing called life together.
Wealth–not to mention temperate climate–evidently tends to insulate us from that inconvenient truth.