By Loren Seibold
Pew Research has just released a study that says that the recovery of the past couple of years has largely benefited the wealthiest 7%, while the lower 93% of Americans have seen net worth decline. Wealthier households hold their value in stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments that have rallied in value. But for the majority of Americans who have little or no investment in these markets—whose net worth is in their now-less-valuable family home—net worth has declined by 4%.
What will this mean for churches and the institutions associated with them? Most congregations rely exclusively on contributions, but many educational institutions are also heavily dependent upon gifts. Those who have in their constituency a concentration of these wealth holders will undoubtedly be in a better position to ride out the next few years.
That assumes that wealthy Christians are willing to contribute. Ken Stern writes in a recent Atlantic article that the wealthiest families give an average of 1.3% to charity, while the poorest give 3.2%. Stern suggests that “the personal drive to accumulate wealth may be inconsistent with the idea of communal support”, and he quotes Berkeley research psychologist Paul Piff that “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people.” The reason, he believes, is isolation: the wealthy are simply less aware than others of the needs around them. “Wealthy people who lived in homogeneously affluent areas—areas where more than 40 percent of households earned at least $200,000 a year—were less generous than comparably wealthy people who lived in more socioeconomically diverse surroundings.
The rich also contribute differently than the poor. “The poor” says Stern “tend to give to religious organizations and social-service charities, while the wealthy prefer to support colleges and universities, arts organizations, and museums.” So small churches and schools, especially those located in declining industrial and rural areas, may continue to decline, while universities and large congregations, especially those in wealthy suburbs that are most likely to have well-off alumni and members, might even thrive.
Given the increase in income inequality, that 1.3% can be massive. Charting the path ahead for ministry providers will require institutions to get the attention of those relatively isolated wealth-holders for less “sexy” projects than museums and self-named new college buildings—and that might not be easy.