Chinese earthquake relief: America keeps its wallet closed

Last week, in the break-room at my wife's office, there was a little jar marked "Chinese Earthquake Relief Fund." While it was there, her coworkers quietly and anonymously filled it with bills and change. At the end of three days, the jar contained $400. Her boss agreed to double all contributions, so the company just sent off a total of $1,200 to help the thousands of Chinese people who are currently homeless and hopeless. While perhaps just a drop in the bucket, these contributions will help somebody, somewhere, in a place that desperately needs every penny that it can get.

Unfortunately, my wife's office is the exception. In the 20 days since a cyclone hit Burma and the 11 days since an earthquake hit China, private individuals in the United States have donated $57 million, which is far below the average response for previous disasters. Traditionally, in fact, Americans are very generous when disaster strikes. For example, in the first five days after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Americans donated $207 million. In the case of hurricane Katrina, the response was even more intense; within the first five days after the hurricane struck, Americans donated $226 million.

News sources have offered a wide array of reasons for the tepid private response. Some blame the recession, which has left many Americans scrounging for cash, unable to send money to charitable causes. Other culprits include concerns about China's human-rights abuses or lingering questions about the corporate honesty of charities. Perhaps the most interesting excuse is so-called "disaster fatigue," or the belief that we've seen it all before.