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.”
The same holds true for 2011. As the McClatchy Newspapers noted: “In 2011, the Romney’s charitable cash contributions included $1.115 million to the Mormon church and $214,516 to Tyler Charitable Foundation, a Romney family foundation. The Romneys also claimed a deduction of $920,573 for noncash contributions that were not spelled out in a statement accompanying the return.”
In other words, the Mormon church was the biggest recipient of the Romneys’ largesse. And what does the other main recipient every year, the Tyler Charitable Foundation, do? It makes up for shortcomings in Romney’s donations to his church. According to the Daily Caller, Romney actually fell slightly short of the tithing requirement in 2009. But the Tyler Foundation gives to the Mormon church, and when you add in those contributions as Romney family money, they exceed the threshold. But that, in turn, is true only if you don’t also count the foundation’s income from its investments as Romney family income. If you did, the Romneys would fall well below the tithing requirement.
Here, via Forbes, is a breakdown of where the Tyler Charitable Foundation has given the more than $7 million it doled out since 2000:
1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: $4,781,000
2. Brigham Young University: $525,000
3. The United Way: $177,000
4. Right to Play: $111,500
5. The George W. Bush Library: $100,000
6. Operation Kids: $85,000
7. Center For Treatment of Pediatric MS: $75,000
8. Harvard Business School: $70,000
9. City Year: $65,000
10. Deseret International: $50,000
Weber State University: $50,000
As you can see, the majority of the funding goes to the Mormon church. The second-biggest recipient is the Mormon university that Romney attended. Other recipients include Romney’s former business school, and the library of the former president he has an incentive to curry favor with. In all, it is clear that Romney’s donations are about taking care of his own and advancing his personal interests. Relative to his vast wealth, he has given relatively little to programs that assist those truly in need.
Donations to religious organizations are considered “charitable contributions” for tax purposes. So are private schools. But that doesn’t mean that giving your church money for a new stained glass window or helping your alma mater build a new swimming pool is charity in the colloquial sense.
The Business Insider breakdown of Romney’s personal donations in 2009 and 2010 is worth quoting at length, because it exposes just how miserly he actually is.
In 2010, Mitt Romney took $3 million in charitable deductions on his tax return, against adjusted gross income of $22 million.
$1.5 million was a direct cash donation to the LDS Church
$1.5 million was a stock donation to the Romney’s private foundation, which is called the Tyler Foundation. The Tyler Foundation, in turn, gave away $647,500 in 2010, of which $145,000 went to the church. (The Tyler Foundation is controlled by the Romneys, so any money the Tyler Foundation gives away is effectively money the Romneys are giving away)
In 2010, therefore, Romney gave third parties (other than his foundation) a total of $2.1 million, with a total of $1.7 million going to the church. 78 percent of Romney’s donations in 2010, therefore, went to the church.
In 2009, meanwhile, Romney’s private foundation gave away a total of $631,000. This was made up of four gifts:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ($600,000)
My Sister’s Keeper ($5,000)
The Becket Fund ($25,000)
Mass General Hospital Cancer Center ($1,000)
In 2009, therefore, 95 percent of the money Romney’s foundation gave away went to the church.
The other recipients of Romney’s money are often right-wing anti-gay groups. As Raw Story reported: “The Tyler Charitable Foundation, set up and funded by the Romneys, donated $10,000 in 2006 to the Massachusetts Family Institute, which promotes the ex-gay therapy. The charity also donated $25,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which opposes same sex marriage and has compared LGBT activists to the terrorist group al Qaeda.”
So Romney gives $1,000 per year for a cancer center, while his church gets at least 600 times as much and he keeps millions more? He gave virtually nothing to any program that focuses directly on feeding the hungry, housing the homeless or educating the disadvantaged.
Of course, the Mormon church does some of those things itself. But that is not its primary purpose. While the tax code does not distinguish, as it should not, between organizations that exist solely to serve the needy and churches, synagogues or mosques, voters can and should. The Mormon church is not necessarily any less worthy a cause than any other religion, but it is not, say, City Harvest. The Mormon church also spends a lot of money on building grand edifices that non-Mormons are not allowed in. (That rule is so ironclad that even Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents were not allowed to attend her wedding with Mitt.) They send legions of young men on proselytizing missions abroad. Giving to these endeavors may not be a bad thing, but it does not prove that Mitt is some great humanitarian.
Check out our D.C. correspondent's coverage of the Romney's tax returns.