Leaf through the Fraser Institute's annual Generosity Index and you might think Canadians are a nation of Scrooges – miserly and getting stingier.
Less than a quarter of us give to charity, and the percentage has been in steady decline for years.
Americans, on the other hand, are held up as paragons of virtue, selflessly sacrificing their own money to enhance the quality of life of their communities.
The 2013 index suggests that Americans are more than twice as generous as Canadians, based on the share of their income donated to charity (1.33 per cent versus 0.64 per cent for Canadians).
This portrait is misleading and unfair because it focuses almost exclusively on tax-deductible giving.
Think about everything you did last year – the money you gave at the door for various causes, donations of food and old clothing, tickets for charity draws, volunteer hours at the hockey rink and soccer field, and contributions to disease research at the grocery checkout counter.
If you're like most Canadians, you did all that, never getting a receipt for everything spent and unlikely to claim many of these expenses on your tax return. You did it because it was the right thing to do, and you could afford it.
Americans, on the other hand, routinely get a tax break for all these things – because they can, and because the U.S. Internal Revenue Service makes it easy. The clothes donations, the expenses incurred in volunteer activities and all those handouts at the door. No need to submit records and no questions asked, unless you're audited. It's relatively easy to ring up a few thousand dollars in deductible contributions.
In essence, the U.S. tax system more closely tracks the actual value of charity, including the expenses incurred in the act of giving, such as gas or the use of your car.
One can argue the merits of whether that's a good thing. But the net result is that the U.S. system captures a whole lot more generosity.
In Canada's case, simply tracking tax-deductible donations isn't a fair measure of the country's overall generosity. Far too much goes uncounted.
More comprehensive surveys of Canadian giving paint a much more optimistic picture of our collective unselfishness. Statistics Canada, for example, found that almost every Canadian (94 per cent) aged 15 and older gave money, goods or food in 2010. The average cash gift was $446. And the percentage of givers and the amounts did not change between 2007 and 2010 – despite the intervening recession.
This suggests that while the percentage of Canadians making tax-deductible donations has dropped over the past decade, overall giving is holding up well in spite of shaky economic times.
Based on broader surveys of charitable giving, the level of giving between Americans and Canadians looks a lot more similar.
Canada ranks No. 2 in the world in overall giving, with 58 per cent of the population donating something, according to the recently released 2013 World Giving Index, based on Gallup World Poll data. The United States was No. 1, just slightly ahead at 61 per cent. The survey tracks donations of money, time and acts of random generosity to strangers.
Canadian companies ranked No. 2 in the world in generosity with 67 per cent reporting giving, according to a 2012 analysis of charitable contributions by 60 multinationals compiled by the London-based Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.
Consider also that Canada generally has a more generous social safety net than the United States, universal health care and a much broader publicly funded education system.
Americans have more incentive to be more generous because their country has more pronounced socioeconomic disparities. Factor in a much wider income gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States, and Canada's level of giving looks even more impressive.
So, go ahead, Canadians. Pat yourselves on the back.