Americans Are More Generous Than We Think

When the going gets tough, our country's charitable nature still shines through

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Emily Rose Bennett / The Augusta Chronicle / Zuma

Cashier Louise NeSmith, 87, left, of helps Julie Hendrich put money down to help pay a layaway balance for a stranger at Ruben's Department Store in downtown Augusta, Ga., on Dec. 21.

2012 is now upon us, and we know that in this year there will be more rancor (presidential election), stress (economy) and predictably unpredictable natural disasters (no reference to the Mayan calendar intended). There are many reasons to worry, the evening news is full of them. There are reasons for optimism, but you have to dig deeper these past few years to find them. Or you can Google “layaway angels” and read one reason after another why we should have faith in our society’s future.

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For those who missed the news reports in December, anonymous “layaway angels” coast-to-coast paid off the balances on strangers’ store layaway accounts — often emphasizing gifts for children. Reportedly this holiday season phenomenon began with one midwestern woman going into a Kmart and asking to pay off the layaway account of someone, anyone, who was in the process of making installment payments to purchase toys. Perhaps the original layaway angel knew from experience, or simply deduced, that people resorting to the old-fashioned installment method of layaway may be struggling financially. Kudos to Kmart, Wal-Mart and others for facilitating these random acts of kindness — which were contagious after word spread on the news and Internet. At Kmart alone, over one thousand angels contributed about $450,000 nationwide and more than $20,000 was collected at one store in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Because of these layaway angels, many children did not have to wonder why Santa skipped them in 2011. And their parents were spared some of the pain of not being able to provide, at least on Christmas day. These were truly wonderful gestures that cheered and inspired millions. And it was a nice break from the divisive drumbeat of the 99% vs. the 1% to hear about the 10%, 20% or 51% pitching in for the 49%, 30% or whatever the makeup was of the anonymous layaway angels and grateful recipients (some of whom reportedly subsequently became layaway angels.) It was extraordinarily uplifting, especially in these times.

But in fact, people helping people is quite ordinary in this country. The layaway angels add to the long legacy of Americans’ generous nature. Last week, a worldwide study of charitable giving, by the U.K.-based Charities Aid Foundation, ranked Americans first in giving personal money, and time, to organizations and strangers. The ranking cannot be dismissed as simply to be expected of the richest nation. The Foundation’s survey report concluded that “the countries whose populations are the most likely to give are not necessarily the world’s most affluent.” Of the top 20 nations in giving, only five are in the top 20 of economic wealth.

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Never far from my thoughts are memories of being a little girl in Queens, N.Y., our family of five crowded in a small one-bedroom apartment, struggling to learn English and survive a new life in a new country, America. We humbly and gratefully still recall the kindnesses shown by strangers and neighbors who became new friends. Speaking from that experience, today’s layaway angels and the many other Americans who give of themselves in so many ways, all year around, will be remembered and will inspire for a long time to come.