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Most families are experiencing tight financial times, and looking for ways to cut back. Notice that charitable contributions and other forms of philanthropy are among the first sources of cutbacks. The data backs this up: giving goes down in recessions and up in periods of economic recovery.

There is an important lesson in economic history we can deduce from this little nugget of information. If we look back to the period between 5,000 BC and the Middle Ages, we see precious little in the way of human charity in existence. For the most part, the sweep of human history has been more about staying alive rather than preserving and enhancing the lives of others. This is of necessity, an embedded feature of the world into which we are born. The phenomenal increases in prosperity during the Middle Ages Industrial Revolution meant something entirely new in human history: the advent of disposable income. For the first time ever, people other than kings had extra wealth that was not wholly consumed in the provision of food, clothing, and shelter. But ethics can overcome economic constraints. The Christians were a remarkable exception to the tendency mentioned above. Though poor, they gave. Though sick, they still helped the sick. Human life was precious. They made sacrifices, even of their own lives, for the faith.

And yet, economic considerations are also important here. In order for society to have large and developed educational and charitable institutions, there must be resources left over after basic needs have been cared for. In this sense, we are right to think of charity and philanthropy as forms of “luxury” goods that we purchase with disposable income.

There are two lessons we can gain from observing these trends. First, there is no substitute for doing what is right regardless of the economic conditions. Second, rising prosperity offers the best hope for the building of permanent structures to help the poor and serve the whole of society. This in turn necessitates freedom, which is what the Acton Institute supports with your generous support.


Rev. Robert A. Sirico, President