Collection plates, the economy and the 99 percent

Church giving reaches Depression-era lows,” reports Katherine Burgess of Religion News Service:

Collection plates are growing even lighter as Protestant church member giving reached new lows in 2011, and tithing probably will not recover from the recession, according to a new report by Empty Tomb, a Christian research group.

The word “tithing” there is a bit of an overstatement, as Protestant church member giving wasn’t anywhere near the levitical 10 percent even before the financial crisis of 2008 started destroying jobs, livelihoods and household incomes.

The percentage of a church member’s income given to the church dropped to 2.3 percent in 2011 (the latest year for which numbers are available), down from 2.4 percent in 2010, according to the Empty Tomb study.

In 1968, church members gave an average of 3.1 percent of their income.

Giving has declined for four consecutive years, according to the report. The only other period of prolonged decline in giving per member was from 1928 through 1934, almost entirely during the Great Depression.

A big drop in church giving due to the Great Recession was entirely predictable. But the continuing decline of giving even during the recovery suggests something else is going on. Granted, this recovery has been sluggish and weak, struggling against the headwinds of political obstruction, sequestration, wastefully timed deficit-reduction and the chaos of perpetual threats of shutdown and default. Yet still, glacially slow job growth is still job growth — and if this decline in church-giving was purely an economic effect, then we ought to be seeing a corresponding slow resumption of church giving rather than this continuing decline.

My guess is that church-giving initially plummeted along with every other economic indicator in 2008, but then continued to decline because during the prolonged recession, church members lost the habit of giving to churches and acquired, instead, a habit of cutting back on church-giving in order to pay other bills. It’s not like consumer debt, which dropped sharply during the first year of the Great Recession as households “deleveraged” in response to, or for fear of, layoffs, furloughs and reduced incomes. But consumer debt has rebounded — showing that this deleveraging was a temporary response and not a permanent change of habit. Church-giving has not rebounded, suggesting that this decline may be the new normal.

Empty Tomb cites 1968 as the Good Old Days of bountiful generosity and overflowing collection plates, but even then church-giving only accounted for 3.1 percent of household income. I think that reflects the reality — contrary to what most pastors hopefully preach on Stewardship Sunday — that church-giving comes from members “extra” money. It’s not an expense that’s factored into household budgets, but an option for some of the disposable income left over after that budget has accounted for all of its expenses.

That’s a rational approach for most church members. After all, if you don’t pay the electric bill, they may shut off the lights. If you don’t pay the phone bill, they may cut off your phone. But you can still go to church even if you never put anything into the offering plate. Churches face the same free-rider problem that public radio has. Your local NPR station’s programming is “made possible by the support of listeners like you,” but you can always keep listening as long as enough of those other listeners are providing that support.

Empty Tomb’s Sylvia Ronsvalle suggests that churches might begin reversing this decline in giving by “providing an authentic alternative to the consumer mindset.” I’m not sure if I agree with that because I’m not sure what, if anything, that means.

On one level, I think that any church that fails to “provide an authentic alternative to the consumer mindset” ought to shut its doors for good. The gospel is not about seeking happiness by acquiring stuff. The gospel is actually an enormous hindrance to anyone seeking happiness by acquiring stuff (and vice versa). So, yeah, certainly churches ought to be, at a fundamental level, providing an authentic alternative to the consumer mindset.

But on another level, I think churches actually need to better understand and better address the concerns of “the consumer mindset.”

Church-giving is an economic transaction. Donors expect something in return for their donations — not necessarily, and not mainly, something for themselves, but they want to see results. Giving to your church, like giving to any charity, is like hiring a contractor to do good on your behalf. You want to hire someone who will get the job done — someone you can trust to put the money to good and proper and effective use. That concern may be a kind of “consumer mindset,” but it’s one that churches should be honoring by earning and rewarding that trust.

A “consumer mindset” might also constructively remind churches that their donors are also, in a sense, their customers. And in recognizing that, they should remember what the Chamber of Commerce long ago forgot: that what’s good for your customers is good for your business.

Too many churches have tacitly or explicitly been supporting the customer-killing economic policies of the Chamber of Commerce and other perverse business interests who see themselves in a zero-sum competition against the working people — their employees and customers — without whom they’re unable to sell anything. The Dow Jones index has come roaring back to record highs after the Great Recession. Church-giving has not rebounded because employment and wages have not rebounded. Church-giving corresponds with the fortunes of the 99 percent, not with the fortunes of the 1 percent.

Churches ought to be fighting for the concerns of the 99 percent rather than the interests of the 1 percent. That’s true as a matter of basic justice — which ought to be an essential aspect of Christian mission and identity. But it’s also true as a matter of self-interest, because when the 99 percent suffers, so does church-giving. (And when the 99 percent thrives, the 1 percent will also do very nicely for themselves — even better than they’re doing due to their current zero-sum strategy of rent-seeking plunder.)

Just look at the absolute dollar amounts in Empty Tomb’s study:

In 2011, the 23 denominations researched by Empty Tomb received $22.94 billion. In 2010 they received $22.88 billion.

That’s a lot of money, but let’s put it in perspective. Those churches received about $23 billion in 2010. That same year American consumers lost $36 billion in “overdraft protection” fees and charges — a direct transfer of wealth from working people to the 1 percent that was more than 50 percent higher than total church giving for the Protestant denominations in Empty Tomb’s survey.

That wealth-transfer from workers to bankers is expected to be somewhat less this year — down to about “only” $30 billion, thanks to opt-in regulations put in place by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Richard Cordray will be saving working Americans about $6 billion this year with just that one change. That’s a $6 billion increase in that pool of “extra” money from which offering plates are filled. But are churches supporting the CFPB? No — they tend to be aligned with the political movement angrily opposing the agency and defending ever-greater wealth-transfers from workers to bankers. (And they’re doing this, obscenely, in the name of “morality” and “values.”)

Consider Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby’s campaign to put payday lenders in England out of business. Welby is doing this, primarily, as a matter of justice and compassion for the working poor who are being preyed on by usurers. Most of those victims probably aren’t Anglicans with perfect attendance records, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Welby or anyone else involved in this campaign is even slightly motivated by a concern for the effect that predatory lending has on church-giving. Yet surely predatory lending also does deter church-giving. It may have nothing to do with the motives for this campaign, but if Welby is successful, then Britain’s working poor will have a bit more money in their pockets, and people with a bit more money in their pockets are more able to put some of it in the offering plate. People with empty pockets can’t and won’t ever do that.

  • Matri

    There’s some kind of lesson here, I just know it.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    As Keynes taught so long ago, it is possible for an economy to limp along at a semipermanently reduced level of output, provided the political decision-making to rectify the situation is absent. The robust broad-based demand provided by the workers in a society can be neglected in favor of the more anemic demand provided by the wealthy provided that the workers can be conditioned to accept a declining standard of living for years on end.

  • Ben English

    There’s not a simple inverse relationship between the standard of living and big business, but there’s only so low many basic quality of life standards can go before big business feels it too. A month from now the US will experience Black Friday, the first day of the holiday shopping season. It got its name because many businesses were operating in the red, losing money year over year, until that day. If wages continue to stagnate or decline then Black Friday might need a new name–food is a low-profit margin industry and the abundance of thrift stores appearing on every street corner mean that necessities like clothing won’t necessarily carry a department store if the consumer goods market dries up. After all, the sorts of luxuries the super-rich want are usually things you can’t buy at Wal-Mart.

    Somehow I doubt Wal-Mart actually thinks it can get away with its low wages and other shady practices indefinitely, or even the oil companies with their own–they think that the government or the market will eventually force their hand and they’re trying to milk every last dime out of their cash cow before it does.

  • Veylon

    It might also be worth remembering that highest level managers and decision-makers aren’t attached to companies. If the company fails, they can simply move on to another. It means that it can be perfectly logical for companies to behave self-destructively.

  • Mhornbeam

    Since getting any assistance from the government makes one lazy and dependent, doesn’t charity do that as well? Why give the lazy working poor or elderly or veterans or children anything? They won’t learn anything but how to be a taker from people who work hard and had the foresight to never have anything financially ruinous happen to them.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Clearly the former youth pastor put some kind of curse on the building.

  • mattmcirvin

    A lot of banks hit you with fees just for having that little money in a checking account, so that <$20 amount can spontaneously turn negative (which means more fees, unless you're already paying the fees for automatic overdraft protection). I've been bitten by that one myself.

  • jemand2

    Honestly, I far prefer the Muslim take on charity– 2.5% of net worth is expected to be donated every year. That does not harm the poor, and it places extra expectations on the rich!

  • Rowen

    “I’d give you bootstraps to pull yourself up by, but it’s just going to make you a lazy taker who will never amount to anything. Hell, even telling you where the cotton fields are so you can make your own bootstraps is too much. I’d wish you luck, but you have to make your own, and not rely on others…”

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    How did America get stuck with ATM fees? The banks tried them for about 6 months in the late 90s in the UK and the public backlash was so furious that they went away and were never suggested again

  • Sagrav

    I agree. He was clearly a warlock.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    Because you have a legislature that is responsive to the wants and needs of your people?

    We have a legislature that throws tantrums like toddlers when they don’t get their way, but they used to only be responsive to monied interests, who want ATM fees.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    To clarify something else,

    “to know that when you spent money for shelter, all you got out of it was shelter.”

    When I know for the same money, I could have had shelter AND security, that’s what makes me sick.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Well, I’m sure that doesn’t help, but the opposition in Britain was mostly led by the press… Oh wait, same problem. Sorry!

  • Guest

    When I was growing up, my family was pretty poor. We would have qualified for public assistance (but never used it). My parents tithed 10 percent a lot of the time. : |
    Everything is terrible.

  • http://www.missionalyouthministry.com/ Robbie Mackenzie

    Well done!

  • jemand2

    I don’t know, the “bubble” with home prices and the difficulty selling them often, and any number of other things, like if a local disaster becomes more common (flooding, etc) or if the area undergoes some negative effect, (fracking, pipeline through your backyard, etc) you cannot sell, you cannot move, you are stuck, and possibly in a place which is making you sick.

    The ability to move at the end of the year, or to break lease sooner than that, is a different kind of “security” to me. I may someday buy a house, if my financial situation improves, but I don’t feel that it would be universally more “secure” but, just to a few possible situations. And less secure to others.

  • TheBrett

    They probably trotted out the whole “but curbing ATM fees will make it unprofitable to carry cash and set up ATMs everywhere, hurting poor customers who need cash” type of thing. Even though the credit unions around here don’t charge ATM fees on each other’s ATMs, and it seems to work fine.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    I have spent $70,000 in rent, with nothing to show for it. No investment in my future.

    I don’t care about resale value, or bubbles, or markets. I want a place, that I will eventually own. A place that, once it’s paid and if I’m smart, will help me survive when I transition to an even more limited income. Something of value, no matter how limited, that I can pass to my child when I die, that she can use to enrich her own life.

    Yes there are risks to home ownership. They are nothing, IMO, compared to the risks I face now. My landlord could terminate my lease. I don’t have the money to move, that would be an expense I’d need six months or so to prepare for, but they are only required to give me 30 days notice.

    And again, you’ll notice in my comment that I don’t MANDATE home ownership. But the opportunity should be there for those who want it, especially for those whose parents did not own a home, because they are at an a disadvantage in our economic system.

  • guest

    Banks don’t charge ATM fees, but there are private (?) ATMs all over the place that do charge fees, mostly high ones. They’re required to tell you this, though not until just before you hit the button that says ‘give me my money’.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    Banks can and do charge ATM fees. Depends on the type of account you have. Prepaid cards, which belong to banks, charge exorbitant fees.

  • Morilore

    A month from now the US will experience Black Friday, the first day of the holiday shopping season. It got its name because many businesses were operating in the red, losing money year over year, until that day.

    That appears to be a myth.

  • Cathy W

    Very often the standard is to not charge a fee for using your own bank’s ATM, but if you use an ATM not owned by your bank, you’re likely to get a fee (in the range of $3, but sometimes higher) charged by the owner of the ATM, and another one of about the same amount from your bank for the high crime of using someone else’s ATM. There are probably low-status accounts where there’s a fee for any ATM transaction, and and high-status accounts that waive the “foreign ATM” fee.

    This probably annoys grocery stores that allow cash-back on debit – given a choice between $6 in bank fees or buying a pack of gum, I’ll buy the pack of gum.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    No, it doesn’t annoy them they count on it. That’s a pack of gum they wouldn’t have sold, and there’s the off chance you might buy something else.

  • Isabel C.

    Yes, this.

    I’m at a pretty good point in my life right now, and I’ve been fortunate in that I do have the three months’ expenses in savings that people recommend for a single person my age in relatively good health. I even have a little more than that. But it’s still really hard to spend it, because…well, what if I need a root canal?

    I try to fight that particular urge, because it leads–for me, right now–nowhere particularly good. But it’s hard, and I expect it’d be easier in a country with a safety net.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    It also might be worth noting that the “red -> black” thing is a bit of an urban legend. Retail workers who had to deal with the deluge of people in the post-Thanksgiving retail sale biinge run amok called it that.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Charity, by design, lets them discriminate against the lazy people. Government STEALS MONEY AT GUNPOINT ZOMG ARMED ROBBERY and thus it is the worst evil in the world by nature.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Our corporations have more rights than citizens because they have more money. That’s really the bottom line and it’s reiterated every day when the most ridiculous, brazen lawbreaking takes place and no one bats an eye. The best example so far? Banks have fallen into a habit of repossessing homes they don’t actually own, whose owners don’t even have mortgages through them, and in most cases thus far, the banks aren’t being held liable for stealing property. They’re under no obligation to return the property, to pay the owners, nothing. They are above the law.

  • Cathy W

    The transaction fee on a pack of gum + $20 cashback might be more than the profit on the gum, except that I’m hypothetically grabbing it out of the overpriced impulse items at the checklane.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    And Source help you if you try to use an ATM from a different bank chain. There’s a $2.50 to $5.00 fee right there.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    From BOTH banks!

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    I’ve seen smaller stores make you do a purchase minimum before being allowed cash back.

    But debit fees are smaller, they are flat fee to the merchant(through any merchant services provider that’s not a crook) not a percentage rate like charge cards, so that makes the cost of allowing cash back pretty incidental to a big box store.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    “Money can’t buy happiness, but poverty can’t buy ANYTHING.”

  • smrnda

    I don’t have enough upvotes for this comment.

  • smrnda

    It’s a frequent complaint among ex-Mormons I run into.

  • smrnda

    You also have to take into account what % of that money actually goes to something tangible. The audio-visual set-up at many churches is pretty costly.

  • jemand2

    of course, but just… I dunno, I think the system is against the poor and the less powerful. The system that sets up the terms of mortgages, sets the rules of homeownership, etc…

    I don’t know, I just think that the security offered by “owning” a house that is mostly collateral for an outsized loan is fast decreasing. Renting is risky *because* we as a society have set it up such, because we don’t tend to value the types of people who rent, owning a mobile home is similarly risky, as Fred has often mentioned, however the trend I see in actual *house* ownership seems to mirror this. It’s getting much less secure and far more of a way for vast corporations to wring a bit more money out from poorer and less powerful americans to put it in the pockets of the wealthiest.

    I just want to push for more security in *general,* more protections for renters, AND more regulation of mortgages, and then also, perhaps, more access to credit to buy such houses.

  • Alex Harman

    I meant that the messianic leader of a diabolic cult would be an Anti-Christ from the Christian perspective.


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