Data collected since Haiti’s devastating earthquake three weeks ago show the crisis has inspired Americans to donate more than $600 million to relief efforts, the largest outpouring of American support to any foreign natural disaster in history. Only the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005, Katrina and Rita, inspired Americans to give more—$580 million within just the first 10 days after the storms, and $3.6 billion by the end of 2006.
But the overwhelming response to Haiti papers over a difficult truth: No matter how shocking, reports of hunger, homelessness, and disease in the wake of a disaster do not move Americans to pay more attention to those issues on a typical day, once the camera crews leave the scene of a crisis.
• Ray Kelly on taming Haiti’s lawless streets Indeed, Americans have a limited philanthropic interest in international and anti-poverty causes. Research shows that after a humanitarian crisis, targeted donations fall off almost completely after six months, whether or not there is still need on the ground. And even in years when major disasters took place—such as Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami—American giving to those causes accounted for just 1 percent of our total philanthropy, with local churches remaining the nation’s favored recipients of aid.
The result? Only about one-third of American philanthropy—including that of individuals, corporations, and foundations—serves low-income people, either at home or abroad.
Disasters “don’t really alter philanthropy in a meaningful way,” said Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which tracks American giving after high-profile disasters.
Year after year in the United States, regardless of what’s in the news, local religious groups take home about a third of all philanthropic contributions. Their haul was $106.89 billion in 2008, or more than 176 times what has been donated to Haiti thus far. “A large part of that goes toward the ongoing cost of owning and operating a church,” Rooney said, “paying for the rabbi, minister, or priest; heating and air-conditioning costs.”
Even when Americans are spurred to social action by a major disaster, interest wanes relatively quickly. “The sense of immediacy falls off,” Rooney said. “Usually within a year of a disaster, the gifts have slowed down to such a level that it’s not meaningful to track them anymore.”
American giving to some crises, such as the May 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province, drops off so quickly that there is no relevant giving data to track even six months later.
Similar trend lines could spell disaster for Haiti, where bolstering a failed state plagued by environmental degradation and disease will be a long-term project lasting years, if not decades. Will Haiti’s proximity to the United States, its active immigrant population here, and our government’s involvement in rebuilding efforts sustain our interest—philanthropic and otherwise? History says it’s unlikely.
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.