Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Wisconsin One of Cheapest States

Gives little to charity, report shows. Milwaukee is much more generous than state.

By - Oct 19th, 2017 12:41 pm
Downtown Milwaukee. Photo by Dave Reid.

Downtown Milwaukee. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin is a very cheap state, a new analysis by the Chronicle of Philanthropy has found. The magazine examined charitable giving in every state, county and metropolitan area in America in 2015 and found the average percent of income donated can vary greatly. (Its analysis of giving in the top 50 metro areas can be found here, but most of the stories require a subscription to see.)

Among the top 100 metro areas, the amount given to charity that year ranged from a miserly 1.7 percent of income in Worcester, Massachusetts to 9 percent in Provo, Utah. Among states, Utah was at the top with residents giving 6.6 percent of their income to charity, while three states tied for last place, giving just 2.0 percent of their income to charity: New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New Jersey.

Wisconsin ranked 43rd, behind all but seven states, with residents here giving 2.5 percent of their income to charity. Had state residents simply given the national average of their income to charity that year, the magazine reported, it would have meant an additional $634 million would have been donated: for churches, colleges, museums, hospitals, meals for the poor and so many other causes and institutions in Wisconsin. A lack of giving makes for a poorer, more miserly state.

No Midwestern state gave such a low percentage of their income to charity as Wisconsin (though Minnesota came close at 2.6 percent). The comparative cheapness of cheeseheads left them near the bottom bogged down by northeastern sluggards like Maine (2.2 percent) and Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut (all at 2.4 percent).

At the top, after Utah (where the Mormon tradition of tithing probably helped drive the giving) were Arkansas (5.6 percent) and Alabama (5.1 percent). Southern states are generally more generous than northern ones.

But the statistics do show Milwaukee County is more generous than the rest of the state and the other three counties in the metro area. That’s an encouraging sign for what was long a tightwad town.

Back in 1997 I did a cover story for Milwaukee Magazine, “Goodbye Cheap Town,” that documented the tightfisted history of the city. As a 1926 publication by the city on its 80th anniversary noted, “While the city has not been the recipient of art galleries, museums, aquariums, amphitheaters, conservatories and the like from individuals, as have other cities, it is the better for those things it has received.” Which amounted to a list of minor donations generously listed by the publication.

Milwaukee remained a city where the wealthy were so thrifty it was without well-endowed universities, museums, foundations, symphony orchestra or opera company until the 1970s or so, when things began to change. The growth of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, huge donations to Marquette University and the $125 million drive for the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum were evidence of how the philanthropic culture was changing. (Longtime PR maven Bob Zigman, who recently passed away, was among the leaders who helped push for more giving.)

All signs suggest Milwaukee is becoming a more generous place, but could still do more. Certainly, that is what the Chronicle’s research suggests. On the one hand metro Milwaukee trails the top 100 metro areas nationally in giving and we trail in every income category. All told, metro Milwaukee could have given $101 million more in 2015, had it equaled the average percent of income donated by the top 100 cities nationally. The graph shows Milwaukee compared to other metro areas.

How Generous Is Milwaukee?
Percent of income given to charity by income group, Milwaukee versus top 100 metro areas.

Income Milwaukee Top 100 Metro Areas
$50K-$74,999 3.1% 3.8%
$75K-$99,999 2.6% 3.1%
$100K-$199,999 2.2% 2.5%
$200K and more 3.1% 3.3%

These figures come from itemized deductions on annual federal tax forms, which “represents nearly 80 percent of all individual charitable contributions,” the Chronicle notes. Those earning less than 50,000 are not included because few in that bracket tend to itemize donations. But research over the years has shown that less well-do-people tend to give more generously than the wealthy: thus the lowest group in the graph (earning $50,000 to $74,999) give a higher percentage of their income than the top bracket (earning more than $200,000), both in Milwaukee and nationally.

But within the Milwaukee metro area there is a significant difference in giving: Milwaukee County residents on average give 2.9 percent of their income to charity versus 2.7 percent for Waukesha County and 2.6 percent for Ozaukee and Washington County.

Milwaukee county residents, the Chronicle found, on average give 13.2 percent more of their income to charity than state residents, while Waukesha County is 7.5 percent higher, Ozaukee County is 4.2 percent higher and Washington County just 2.2 percent higher in giving than state residents. The less urban the county in metro Milwaukee, the lower the giving and the closer it is to the state average.

In a related story, the Chronicle noted that fewer Americans have been giving to charity since the Great Recession and that has continued even since the recovery.

“With fewer Americans giving to charity, nonprofits are increasingly leaning on the wealthy for support,” the story noted.”Three-quarters of all itemized donations in 2015 were from taxpayers who earned $100,000 or more; those earning $200,000 or more accounted for more than half.”

Another short piece on Milwaukee noted that it has had success growing giving (another sign of increasing generosity), but the growth has been greater from wealthy givers: “Charitable giving in Milwaukee from 2012 to 2015 rose by 7% for those under $100 K and by 16% for those 100K and up.”

As a result, Rob Meiksins, chief executive of the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee, told the Chronicle that many small, community-based organizations continue to struggle, in part because they don’t have the profile or connections to tap into the area’s wealth. “The bigs are going to get theirs, but I don’t know that smaller organizations are seeing a windfall,” Mieksins noted.

Meanwhile, the proposed Trump tax plan could greatly depress charitable giving in America. “That plan would roughly double the standard deduction, meaning millions fewer taxpayers would itemize their tax returns,” the Chronicle noted. “Researchers earlier suggested that Trump tax proposals could reduce charitable giving by $13 billion.” That could be devastating for charitable groups.

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Categories: Murphy's Law

4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Wisconsin One of Cheapest States”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    So when conservatives argue that churches and charity can and should replace the government when it comes to welfare, were that to happen in Wisconsin, those in need would be totally screwed?

  2. When I covered giving to United Way, all the headlines went to corporations or individuals who dropped big checks, but the bulk of the giving actually came from the poorer and middle class groups in the city, even when circumstances turned many of them into United Way customers!

  3. mkwagner says:

    Before we play the blame and shame game with this story, let’s not forget that the Great Recession and Walker’s policies have hit rural areas particularly hard. Even as a Milwaukee resident, I was hit hard by the recession and have not fully recovered, if I ever will. My charitable giving is down, I simply can’t afford to give more. There are many in rural Wisconsin facing the same problems. It is more telling to note that the wealthy WOW counties are out performed by Milwaukee County. Could that be that giving more money to the wealthiest, does not result in a trickle down that helps everyone else?

  4. C.Sommer says:

    The Wisconsin & Milwaukee citizens do contribute generously with their time. Check out the Corporation for Nation and Community Service volunteer and civic engagement ranking by states ( In 2015, Wisconsin was ranked 3rd nationally, as well as for large cities (#3 ranking for Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis). The top three states and their rates in 2015 were Utah 43.23%, Minnesota 35.42% and Wisconsin 35.34%. So personal community awareness and involvement have an major economic impact in hours of service rendered. I find Milwaukeeans do care

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