What Gives?

Texas is one of the country’s most philanthropic states. Is that because we’re also one of the most fiscally conservative?

October 2013By Comments

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

Texas has always been fiscally conservative, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are running it. We have one of the lowest tax burdens per capita in the country and, correspondingly, one of the lowest spending rates. This is partly by design. The state’s practical reach is limited by certain constitutional and legal restrictions on taxing and spending—even if we elected a bunch of commies, they wouldn’t be able to triple the size of government overnight. 

It would be wrong, however, to infer from this that Texas is a fundamentally ungenerous state, where neighbors don’t believe in helping neighbors. In fact, this is a place where, because the government does so little, other players have to do more. It’s been this way since the frontier days, when public spending of any kind was unpredictable and usually pretty paltry. In the Republic of Texas, the Rangers were funded by the government, as a shoestring form of national defense, and in lean years they were sometimes decommissioned. Yet at such moments, they usually kept working as volunteers. Even after Texas became a state, with a more stable approach to such matters, this phenomenon persisted. Throughout the twentieth century, major public works projects were often proposed by private citizens and paid for by private wealth. Philanthropists in Texas are household names: T. Boone Pickens in the Panhandle; Red McCombs in San Antonio; Amon Carter and the Bass family in Fort Worth; the Kinders in Houston; the Hunts and the Perots in Dallas; the Moodys in Galveston; the other Hunts (no relation) in El Paso; and many more. If you happen to find yourself in a museum or a theater in Texas, there’s a good chance one of those names is on the front. If you’re a college student or a cancer patient, you’re probably taking advantage of a facility that was at least partially funded by private money.

The non-rich people of Texas are also highly charitable. A 2012 analysis from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, for example, found that Texas was the thirteenth-most-charitable state in the country, measured by how much discretionary income the median household gave. Texans also give generously of their time—fully 70 percent of the state’s first responders are volunteers (a statistic that has taken on new poignancy since the fertilizer plant explosion in West). It’s hard to think of another state where private citizens have such an outsized role in the provision of public goods and services, which raises a question: Has large-scale charity in Texas been forced into existence by a stingy state government? Or have the great personal family fortunes in the state, and the willingness of those families to give, amounted to a de facto subsidy that has enabled the government to recede?  

Historically, Texas’s government has always been low on cash. When Texans started to get rich—through cotton, cattle, oil, and banking—they got to keep most of their money. That meant generosity was often pragmatic. The Moodys, a banking family from Galveston, are famous for their philanthropic commitments to arts and education. But sometimes they were just pitching in to keep the Island running. “The First National Bank’s safe became jammed this morning and all their money is locked up, so I have furnished them all the money they wanted to run their business,” wrote W. L. Moody Jr. in a 1900 letter to his wife. “I feel proud to be in a position to help the weaker brethren when in distress.”

For other philanthropists, Texas’s relative privation meant that the state offered a clear opportunity to make a difference. John and Dominique de Menil were originally from France. After escaping to the United States during World War II, they moved to Houston for the same reason everyone does: to work. It was only after they’d settled there that they started to see the city as a canvas. “When I arrived in Texas, there was not much you could call art,” said Dominique in a 1983 interview with texas monthly. “Houston was a provincial, dormant place, much like Strasbourg, Basel, and Alsace . . . . That is why I started buying.” The Menils were also big on selling. The anthropologist Pamela G. Smart, in an essay about the couple, noted that John once wrote a letter to the editor of Swiss Air’s in-flight magazine, naming a couple of Houston’s famous museum directors as proof of the city’s cultural vibrancy. What he didn’t mention was that he and his wife had helped recruit both and were supplementing both of their salaries.

It was an honorable dissimulation and not an uncommon one for rich Texans, who spent much of the twentieth century playing catch-up with other places. For Fort Worth philanthropists the point has often been to catch up with bigger, showier Dallas. Philanthropy in Dallas, meanwhile, has often been a response to critics farther afield. In 1974 the New York Times ran a story asking why Dallas couldn’t manage to keep an orchestra afloat. “After all, Dallas has nearly four thousand individuals and families (out of a population of 800,000) with annual incomes in excess of $50,000 and according to local sources, no fewer than 400 millionaires.” Dallas has an orchestra now, and an elegant theater, and a new science museum. The last is named after Ross and Margot Perot, whose children contributed $50 million. (Fun fact: it includes an exhibit where visitors can move a Ping-Pong ball with their brain waves.)  

Of course, there have always been plenty of people in Dallas, and everywhere else in Texas, who have bigger problems than being chided by the New York Times. This is still a state with widespread poverty, crumbling roads, underfunded schools, and numerous other public policy challenges. Philanthropy has tried to step into this breach as well. The H-E-B grocery chain gives 5 percent of its pretax profits to charity; its chairman and CEO, Charles Butt, has given millions of dollars to public education reform efforts, and in 2011 he gave $20 million to San Antonio’s Children’s Museum. Or consider the case of MD Anderson Cancer Center, which was created by the Lege in 1941 with a $500,000 appropriation and a commitment from private donors to raise the matching funds, as long as the center was built in Houston. In the decades since then, philanthropic giving has exceeded all expectations. In 2006 MD Anderson announced a $1 billion fund-raising campaign; it blew past that target two years early and ended up with $1.2 billion. In 2012 it announced its new “Moon Shots” program, which aims to increase survival rates for eight kinds of cancer. The fund-raising target is $3 billion, and money has been pouring in: $1.5 million from the Kenedy Foundation in Corpus Christi; $10 million from the Kleberg Foundation in San Antonio; another $10 million from the C. G. Johnson estate; and a cool $50 million from Lyda Hill, the granddaughter of the wildcatter H. L. Hunt.

As those gifts suggest, Texas’s long-standing philanthropic families are still active in the field. And we’re seeing new names emerge, like Graham Weston, the chairman and co-founder of San Antonio web-hosting giant Rackspace, whose first major investment in Texas was his decision to keep the company in his hometown, and billionaires John and Laura Arnold, of Houston, who are among the biggest donors in the United States. All told, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Texas gave about $10.7 billion to charitable causes in 2012, a big number, but keep in mind that Texas is the second-most-populous state in the country—and California and New York gave more.

As Rick Perry would be happy to tell you, both of those states do a lot more taxing and spending than Texas. But does this mean that maybe Texas isn’t as generous as its coastal counterparts, where people give more to charity and to the government? Are notoriously conservative Texans less generous than notoriously liberal Californians? There has been, in recent years, some controversy around the question of whether there’s a correlation between political affiliation and charitable giving. The shot across the bow came from Arthur C. Brooks, the head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who summarized his research in a 2006 book titled Who Really Cares? Brooks reported that conservative-headed households gave, on average, 30 percent more money each year than households headed by liberals—even though the liberal households earned 6 percent more money overall. He had also found that conservatives volunteer more than progressives and that they were more likely to give blood. Subsequent studies, such as the Chronicle of Philanthropy ranking mentioned above, have found similar patterns.

Such findings irritate liberals, who point out that what these studies are actually measuring is religious belief, not political affiliation. Religious people are more charitable than secular people, whether they’re conservative or not, and if conservatives look more generous than liberals, then it’s only because religious people are more likely to lean right than left. It’s kind of a weird controversy. Brooks himself made the point about religion; he told one interviewer that his most surprising finding was that secular conservatives give “even less than secular liberals.” More importantly, if it turns out that conservatives actually do give more—of their time, their money, and even their blood—that doesn’t mean that liberals are actually selfish. It could just mean that liberals prefer to give through the government, whereas conservatives tend to go around the government. In Texas, where there isn’t that much government in the first place, it’s easy to see the impact.

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