What Romney’s charitable giving should mean for voters

Two things about Mitt Romney’s tax returns, released last week, stand out like a spotlight on a dark night. The first is the amount he gave to charity in 2011 — $4,020,772, or 30 percent of his income. The other, more stunning, item is that he claimed only $2.25 million of this because he didn’t want to be pushed into a lower tax bracket.

Of course, he probably did this for political reasons, knowing full well he would be running for president in 2012, putting him under close scrutiny.

But politics also seems to saturate President Barack Obama’s tax returns. He gave 21.8 percent of his sizeable (by average American standards) income to charity, according to his 2011 returns.

That’s an impressive amount, as was the 14 percent in 2010 and the 25.1 percent in 2009, when he donated his entire Nobel Peace Prize earnings to charities.

But go back to the days before he was contemplating the White House and you get a different picture. As this Washington Post piece reports, Obama gave 1.2 percent in 2004, 1.4 percent in ’03 and 0.4 percent in ’02.

Romney hasn’t released tax returns prior to ’11, but his campaign says he averaged giving 13.5 percent of his income to charity over the last 20 years.

Reaction to this has been fairly muted from the left, while journalists more sympathetic to Romney have weighed in with admiration. This piece by John Podhoretz of the New York Post, said, “Mitt Romney is an extraordinarily, remarkably, astonishingly generous man. A good man. Maybe even a great man.

“That is all. There is no ‘but.’ Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant, stupid or a liar.”

Podhoretz said it would be wrong to cynically claim Romney’s charity is nothing more than a tax shelter. Nothing is being sheltered. Once the money is given to charity, it is gone. All you get is a deduction that, at the highest marginal rate, means you are excused from paying taxes on 35 percent of the money you gave away.

Over 20 years, he writes, this would likely mean the Romneys gave up $30 million in income to charity.

Brian Siegel, writing in the Daily Illini, the student paper of the University of Illinois, took Obama campaign manager David Axelrod to task for criticizing Romney for paying a higher tax rate than he ought to have.

“Let me get this straight, we are supposed to be mad that he didn’t claim all of his refund for the charitable contributions he made? I almost feel bad for Romney. He’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. God forbid he takes his full tax break and his effective tax rate dips below 10 percent — it would be political suicide.”

In truth, this is a minor side-note to the presidential campaign of 2012. Even to compare charitable contributions among candidates seems a bit crass. They can serve as a window to a person true character, but that window reveals only a small bit of what might be valuable as leader of the free world. My guess is many of us know some extremely generous people we otherwise wouldn’t trust with an arsenal of nuclear weapons or with crafting a nation’s fiscal policy or dealing with Iran.

Romney’s reluctance to release these returns, however, is curious. It’s no surprise that he’s an extremely wealthy man, or that much of his income is derived from investments that entitle him to a lower tax rate. However, he seems to have a sense of modesty about his contributions, entirely in keeping with his religion, that makes him reluctant to talk about how much he gives.

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About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

4 comments

  1. Bot

    Let’s summarize Mitt Romney’s charitable history:

    Volunteer campaign worker for his dad’s gubernatorial campaign 1 year.

    Unpaid intern in Governor’s office 8 years.

    Mormon missionary in Paris 2 years.

    Unpaid bishop and stake president for 10 years.

    Took no salary as president of the Salt Lake Olympics 3 years.

    No salary as MA governor 4 years.

    Gave his ENTIRE INHERITANCE to charity.

    That’s a grand total of 28 years of unpaid service to his country, his community and his church. Why? Because that’s the kind of man Mitt Romney is.

    And he’ll show you his:

    1) Un-doctored Birth Certificate!

    2) College transcripts! Mitt did not claim he was a foreign student because his father was born in Mexico.

    3) Law degree!

    4) Un-doctored Draft notice!

    5) And un-doctored Social Security card, and what state it’s registered in!

    When was the last time we elected a politician of this character, intellect, experience and integrity?

  2. LDS Liberal

    Bill and Melinda Gates are using what God blessed them with to vaccinate children, improve agriculture, provide sanitation, and pregnant women with pronatal care.

    Jon and Karen Huntsman Sr. are using what God blessed them with to treat and find a cure for Cancer.

    Mitt Romney is hiding what God blessed him with in the Caymen Islands, and Swiss Bank accounts and collects money from other people to make himself President of the United States.

    Jay – You obviously missed the $1.1 million Mitt Romney gave to the LDS Church as a charitable contribution, on his $13.7 million in earnings.
    You do the math.

  3. CallieG

    I don’t think anyone should count money given to a church as a “charitable” contribution, especially when it’s required as a condition of one’s membership in that church. Churches aren’t charities. Yes, some provide charitable services, but most are entirely self-serving.

    • I take issue with what you say, given that churches, and believers, have charitable missions that reach to the soul as well as to temporal needs. But one thing you said is factually incorrect. Mitt Romney’s religion does not require tithing as a condition of membership. As a fellow member of his church, I can tell you no one gets excommunicated for not paying tithing. No one would know whether you are paying it or not.

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