Parents Talk Back

Are the Wealthy Less Generous?

A stranger contacted Raquita Henderson through a Facebook message wanting to meet with her because she liked her social media posts.

Henderson, a photographer who has 5,000 “friends” on Facebook, didn’t hesitate. She met the stranger for coffee about four years ago. Unless she gets some kind of weird vibe, she says she is happy to meet with anybody looking for some kind of connection. “I just want to be available for people,” she said.

Henderson said the woman seemed sweet. She was new to the St. Louis area and appeared to be struggling. Henderson told her to call if she ever needed company. She didn’t hear her from her for years until before this past Thanksgiving. The woman was having family trouble and needed some gas money to go stay with a friend.

“I can help you with that,” Henderson replied. She sent her gas money. A few months went by, and she received another request. The woman was living out of her car in January, and it was bitterly cold outside. She had found a place to live but needed money for the first month’s deposit.

“If you’ve got a solid plan, I’m sure we can help you,” Henderson said. She described the woman’s situation in a post on her Facebook page and asked if anyone could kick in some funds for her. Within four hours, she had a few hundred dollars. Henderson drove to where the woman was staying that night and handed her the money.

“She gave me a hug” and was very grateful, Henderson said. She messaged her a few times to say how much she appreciated the help.

Many of us might worry about being taken advantage of if a relative stranger asked us for more than a few dollars. I asked Henderson if she wasn’t a little suspicious about the request. She laughed.

“If people have a need, I try to fill the need,” she said. She credits her husband and best friend for keeping an eye out for her to make sure she isn’t getting hustled. “They will stop me from doing too much,” she said.

There’s a body of research that shows that those with less wealth give a greater percentage of their income than wealthier people. A 2014 survey by The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that those earning $200,000 or more per year reduced their giving during the Great Recession and its aftermath by 4.6 percent, while those making less than $100,000 increased their donations by 4.5 percent.

Researchers suggest one reason that the wealthy may find it harder to be more generous is because they see the utility of social connections differently.

Most people can imagine themselves in difficult situations in which they may need to rely on others. The rich are far more insulated from those sorts of concerns. The reasons why some groups give more than others are complex, but empathy is certainly tied to generosity. Neuroscientists at the University of Chicago discovered specific brain markers that predict generosity in children. Their research suggests that encouraging young children to reflect upon the moral behavior of others may foster sharing and generosity in them. Unsurprisingly, kids who grow up in families that prioritize giving time and money to others are more likely to be givers themselves.

In Henderson’s case, she knows what it’s like to get help when you need it. Around this time last year she had a water main break in her office. It was going to cost $3,000 to repair. She posted about her situation on her Facebook page and asked her community to book photography jobs from her, so she could quickly earn the money she needed. Her “friends” came through for her. They bought sessions as gifts for other people. One person bought 10 sessions and told her to give them out to people throughout the year.

“It made me feel appreciated and seen,” Henderson said. Her style of generosity ought to be seen, too.

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