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Published: Thursday, 7/3/2008

Big hearts in tough times

IT'S encouraging to know that when economic circumstances are tough, as they are now, Americans still make healthy contributions to charity.

Even as the nation was heading into recession in 2007, philanthropic giving increased, if only slightly, according to the Giving USA Foundation. Pledges and donations totaled $306.69 billion - 1 percent more than 2006.

Expert observers say it's too early to know whether charitable giving will fall this year, although they suspect it has declined some. No surprise there, what with the cost of a gallon of gasoline at more than $4.

There is also some indication that the wealthy have tightened their money belts. For example, donations fell by 21 percent - to $56.5 million - at last month's annual benefit for the Robin Hood Foundation, which is largely supported by hedge-fund managers. Your average working Mary and Joe didn't make up that guest list. It included people with nine and 10-figure incomes.

Given the economic squeeze, it's no wonder that folks with low and moderate incomes either reduce or slash their charitable giving, which is the real problem. "Those people won't make headlines because they're giving $100, not $100 million," Timothy Ogden, editor of Philanthropy Action, an online journal, told the New York Times. "But they are the vast majority of donors, and most charities depend on them."

Religious organizations still get the biggest slice - about a third - of philanthropic dollars. Educational institutions get the next largest share. You have to wonder, though, what people do with the money they would ordinarily give to charity. It's not all going into their gas tanks. A look at busy shopping malls suggests retailers might getting some of it.

Most Americans are unhappy about the economic direction of the country but by and large they are keeping the wheels of commerce turning. Maybe those economic stimulus checks from the federal government are paying off after all. We hope so.

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