As soon as Mitt Romney’s 2011 tax returns were released, newspapers unleashed a flood of credulous stories touting his supposedly large charitable contributions.
“Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was far more generous to charities than President Barack Obama or Vice President Joe Biden last year, both in dollar terms and as a percentage of income,” reported Politico. “Romney and his wife, Ann, gave 29.4 percent of their income to charity in 2011, donating $4,020,772 out of the $13,696,951 they took in. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama gave 21.8 percent of their income to charitable organizations last year, donating $172,130 out of the $789,674 they made.”
John D. McKinnon of The Wall Street Journal, in a biased digression, added: “The Republican candidate’s giving reflects a tendency his party would like to see replicated more widely. Republicans favor a world in which people pay fewer taxes and give more to charity, believing that private spending is more effective than that of the federal government.” This is both untrue and irrelevant. The Republican political platform is to cut taxes on the rich and government aid to the poor. Sure, some of them sometimes claim that private charity will fill in the gap. But giving more to charity is not a political proposal that Republicans support and Democrats oppose.
The notion that the Romneys are necessarily more generous than the Obamas is false for a few reasons. First, there is the principle of progressivity. To expect people making tens of millions of dollars per year, such as the Romneys, to merely give the same percentage of their income to charity as people making less than one million dollars, such as the Obamas, is the equivalent of a flat tax. But our tax code is progressive for a reason: the more you make, the more of your income is disposable. And so, richer people should give a higher proportion of their income to charity just as they should pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes.
Given that the Romneys have already amassed a fortune of of more than $200 million, and their children are grown, they could afford to have given away all of their income in 2011 and every year to come. But they didn’t.
While running for president Romney seems to have suddenly found his inner philanthropist. As George Zornick reports (quoting Romney’s trustee, Brad Malt), “Over the entire 20-year period period [of 1990-2009, the Romneys gave to charity an average of 13.45 percent of their adjusted gross income.” To be a Mormon in good standing one must donate 10 percent of one’s gross income to the Mormon church. If Romney did so, that means he gave only 3.45 percent of his vast fortune to all other charities.
Finally, there is the question of whom Romney gives his money to. Business Insider ran the numbers: “The answer appears to be primarily one organization: The Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon church. According to tax documents viewed by Business Insider, the vast majority of the money Mitt Romney gave away in 2009 and 2010—80 percent of it—went to the church.”