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04.16.10

The Stingiest Politicians

President Obama may have donated $329,100 to charity last year, but the Bidens were less generous, giving away less than 2 percent of their income. From Palin to Spitzer, we look at political scrooges and givers.

This week the White House released the Obama and Biden tax returns, revealing that our current president earned more last year—$5.6 million—than any sitting president in history. In addition to spreading the totality of his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize winnings around to 10 different charities, the Obamas donated nearly 6 percent of their income, or $329,100, to worthy causes—equal approximately to the amount the Bidens earned last year.

But the veep—long known as one of the less-wealthy members of the Washington political class—surrendered less than 2 percent of his income to charity, less than the typical American household donates annually.

Here we reveal the most generous and stingiest politicians—from a sex scandal-plagued former governor who’s surprisingly generous to a hapless current one who donated only a sack of old clothes. How much—and to whom—are these self-professed public servants giving?

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Barack Obama (Alex Brandon / AP Photo)

Barack and Michelle Obama

The Obamas had a very profitable 2009, due largely to sales of the president’s two memoirs, raking in over $5.6 million. They donated $329,100, or 5.85 percent of that income, to some 40 charities, with international anti-poverty group CARE and the United Negro College Fund receiving the largest gifts. All of the president’s $1.4 million Nobel winnings went to charity, including $250,000 each to the Fisher House Foundation, which helps military families, and to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund.

If you exempt the Nobel cash, though, 2009 wasn’t the Obamas’ most generous year. The couple’s donations spiked in 2007, with donations of $240,000 as Barack Obama emerged as a presidential candidate. From 2000 to 2004, they never gave more than $3,500 a year.

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Joe Biden (Chris O'Meara / AP Photo)

Joe and Jill Biden

Joe Biden does not have a pair of major bestsellers to his credit, meaning the Bidens’ 2009 income was significantly lower than the Obamas’ at $333,182. Still, their charitable contributions, which totaled $4,820, represented a measly 1.45 percent of their income—most Americans are believed to donate between 3 and 5 percent of their household incomes every year.

But it should come as no surprise. In the decade before the 2008 election, while he served as a senator from Delaware and Jill Biden was a community-college teacher, the couple averaged $369 a year in charitable contributions, hovering around 0.1 percent of their income. The low point came in 1999 when they donated $120 of their $210,797 earnings and the high was only $995 in 2007. According to NozaSearch.com, a database of charitable contributions, most of the Bidens’ small gifts over the years were to the Beebe Medical Center in Delaware.

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David Paterson (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

David Paterson

Governor David Paterson earned a reputation as a cheapskate in 2008 when it emerged that, while earning nearly $270,000 in 2007, he donated just $150 to charity in the form of a bag of clothing. Paterson and his wife, Michelle Paige Paterson, have tried to make amends in the two years since then. In 2009, they gave $4,650 to charity, including $1,500 to battered women’s shelters and the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, although it still only constituted about 1.6 percent of the couple’s joint $328,284 income. The increased generosity, however, has been somewhat drowned out by other headlines in what has been a dismal year for Paterson—especially since he is accused of inappropriate meddling in a domestic-violence case against a close aide.

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Sarah Palin (Ross D. Franklin / AP Photo)

Sarah Palin

In the years before she was drawn into the national spotlight, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin fell squarely in the national average for charitable contributions. In 2006 and 2007, she and her husband donated 2 to 3 percent of their income, or about $4,000. Most of those donations, according to her tax returns, were of clothes and household items to the Salvation Army in Wasilla, Alaska—it must have been a lot more clothing than David Paterson was donating. And like many American givers, the Palins donated generously to local churches.

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Eliot Spitzer (Heidi Gutman / AP Photo)

Eliot Spitzer

Long before he had to reinvent his image to bounce back from a prostitution scandal, Eliot Spitzer was more than fulfilling his charitable obligations. In 2006, when he and his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, earned $1.97 million—including Spitzer’s state salary of $145,916—they gave $141,634 to charity, a whopping 7 percent of their income. The bulk of the gifts went to Children for Children, a charity that organizes volunteering opportunities for children founded by Spitzer’s wife, as well as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Columbia County Land Conservancy in upstate New York.

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The Clintons (Jeff Christensen / AP Photo)

Bill and Hillary Clinton

In the eight years after President Bill Clinton left office, he and Hillary soared north through the tax brackets, earning a combined $109 million. Much of that wealth came from blockbuster memoir sales and huge speaking fees. During those eight years, tax returns show they recorded some $10.2 million in charitable contributions, or a very generous 9.35 percent of their income. Most of those contributions went straight into the Clinton Foundation—a charity founded by the Clintons to focus on global issues like health, climate change, and economic development—which has only spent about half the money. Hillary is known to write out personal checks to charities for women's issues when moved by what she has heard.

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Dick Cheney (Karin Cooper / AP Photo)

Dick Cheney

When Dick Cheney was still a vice-presidential candidate in 2000, the charitable donations column in his tax return caught the eyes of the media. During the 1990s, Cheney earned $20,677,742 and donated $209,832, or just over 1 percent of his income, putting him well below the American average. Yet, he argued defiantly that his contributions were “ appropriate.” ''I think that's a choice that individuals have to make in terms of what they want to do with their resources,” Cheney said. “It's not a policy question. It's a private matter.”

More recently, he and his wife, Lynne, have atoned for their tight-fistedness. In 2005, when they made over $8.8 million, the Cheneys donated just under $6.9 million to charity after exercising stock options and royalties from Mrs. Cheney’s books, according to their tax return. They also donated a further $75,560 to churches and nonprofits, including the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army’s hurricane relief funds, and Martha’s Table, which provides food and services to the poor in the Washington area.

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Al Gore (Rick Scuteri / AP Photo)

Al Gore

While Al Gore was vice president, his charitable contributions fluctuated. According to his 1997 tax return, he and his wife, Tipper, only gave $353 to charity as they earned $197,729. Strangely, the year marked a trough, since their 1996 return reported donations of $35,530. Since then, Gore has returned to his charitable ways. In 2007, he donated his share of the Nobel Peace Prize winnings, which totalled nearly $800,000, entirely to the Alliance for Climate Protection, an American group that works to implement solutions for climate change.

Research by Josh Robinson