American Giving Lost Some Ground in 2018 Amid Tax Changes and Stock Market Losses

Although far fewer Americans took the charitable deduction on their tax returns, giving stayed fairly steady, according to the annual Giving USA report.

The Conversation
The Conversation
Jun 19, 2019 at 7:38PM
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This article was written by Una Osili, Professor, Economics and Philanthropic Studies; Associate Dean for Research and International Programs, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI, and Sasha Zarins, Project Coordinator, Doctoral Student, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI. It originally appeared on The Conversation, a not-for-profit news site dedicated to unlocking ideas and knowledge from academic experts.

The sweeping tax reforms that took effect in 2018 meant fewer Americans could itemize their taxes and benefit from the charitable deduction.

Has that brought about any dramatic changes in charitable giving?

We are the lead researcher and an author of Giving USA 2019: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018, which the Giving USA Foundation releases every year in partnership with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Overall, our team found, total giving was virtually flat in 2018. It increased by 0.7% in current dollars to US$427.71 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that was a 1.7% decline from 2017. If the tax code changes did have an effect on giving in 2018, we see it mainly in giving by individuals: It fell by 3.4 percent in real terms – the largest decline since the Great Recession ended.

Tax changes

According to IRS data, more than 45 million households itemized their deductions in 2016. This number dropped by an estimated 16 to 20 million in 2018, according to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation – to about 12% of all taxpaying households.

Even with that sharp decline, however, individual giving remained the largest source of charitable dollars. Accounting for 68% of all donations, it far exceeded the next largest source – foundations, which composed 18% of the total.

At the same time, the share of all giving from individuals declined from 70% in 2017 and an estimated high of 85% in 1979. It marked the first time individual giving fell below 70% since 1954. The rest of the country's donations came from bequests from the estates of deceased individuals and gifts from corporations.

However, it is too soon to tell what the full extent of the ramifications of the changes to tax policy will be.

Some Americans may not have completely understood how the changes would affect their giving before filing taxes in 2018. Therefore, they may not have changed how they donated in 2018, yet they might make adjustments in 2019 and beyond.

Stock market

The economy was relatively strong in 2018, buoyed by many of the economic factors that can boost giving, such as rising disposable personal income levels and GDP growth.

But the stock market's performance also influences how much Americans give to charity, as economists John List and Yana Gallen have found. And the S&P 500 stock market index fell 4.4% in 2018. This drop likely made an impact on giving in ways that are difficult to separate from the effects of the tax changes.


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Generational changes

Despite declining from 2017, overall giving to religious congregations, at $125 billion, and giving to educational causes including higher education, at nearly $60 billion, continued to exceed all other types of charitable giving in 2018.

Organizations dedicated to environmental issues and animals, as well as international affairs organizations, account for a smaller share of overall charitable giving, but they were the only categories to see any growth in 2018. Giving to international affairs groups grew 7% adjusted for inflation, comprising 5% of all donations. Giving to environmental and animal organizations rose 1.2% adjusted for inflation.

We believe that the uptick in giving to these causes may reflect generational changes. Environmental and international causes tend to receive more support from younger Americans than older adults.

These trends might indicate that there could be some additional challenges ahead for philanthropy beyond the tax code changes. Older Americans have traditionally played an outsized role in American giving, increasing the amounts donated as they age.

Several scholars have emphasized that the lasting impact of the Great Recession and other economic factors could change that trajectory for millennials. Taken together with how each generation's unique experiences and resulting values and beliefs shape distinct philanthropic identities, today's younger adults may give differently than earlier generations as they gain economic and financial stability.