Jeb Bush says he’s proud of what he and his wife, Columba, have contributed to charity. But his tax records show they’ve given less than the national average and less than others with similar wealth.
The former Florida governor’s boast that he and his wife had donated $739,000 to charity since he left the governor’s office in 2007 is only one view of his record.
In 2013, the most recent tax year for which his records were available, the Bushes’ charitable contributions of $110,616 amounted to 1.5 percent of an adjusted gross income of $7.3 million. In 2012, their $104,169 in contributions amounted to 1.8 percent of their adjusted gross income.
Bush said he will report contributing $307,944 to charity in his 2014 tax return, but he has filed for a six-month filing extension and his adjusted gross income for that year was not made available.
3% is the average amount of income Americans give to charity
That’s below the 3 percent national average for charitable giving and the 3.38 percent average in Florida, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
And it’s well below some of Bush’s political peers, who have far outpaced that level of giving, particularly as they made more money or began eyeing an election.
California businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who like Bush has announced a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, released two years of tax returns and reported giving $261,426, or 13 percent of her $1,953,929 adjusted gross income, in 2013. She gave 15 percent of her income in 2012.
President Barack Obama in 2014 contributed nearly 15 percent of his $477,383 adjusted gross income to charity.
But in 2004, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, gave just 1.2 percent of his salary.
Bush’s rate of contributions to charity is low, “but Obama was even lower until he realized his tax returns would become public,” said Paul Caron, a Pepperdine University law professor who edits the Tax Prof Blog. Not all politicians increase their charitable contributions, Caron said, noting that Vice President Joe Biden “consistently gives meager amounts to charity.”
The vice president gave 1.9 percent in 2014, Caron’s blog shows. And though he gave 5 percent in 2013, he’s given as little as 0.06 percent.
Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, boosted their contributions once they became public figures, Caron said.
His blog shows how the percentage of charitable giving by the Clintons increased leading up to Hillary Clinton’s first presidential bid. For example, they gave 1.2 percent to charity in 2002, but 14.7 percent in 2007.
Bush, who converted to Catholicism after he lost his first race for governor, often talks about the importance of faith in his life.
The average Catholic gives $10 to their parish during the weekly collection, which is just about 1 percent of median family income, said Mark M. Gray, a research associate professor and director of CARA Catholic Polls at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
“I would doubt that any Catholic voter would change whatever their current thinking is on Jeb Bush based on his level of giving,” Gray said.
Bush noted that in addition to the charitable giving, he and Columba have helped raise money for various causes, including $17 million for literacy, $7.4 million for cystic fibrosis research and more than $1 million for domestic violence. Bush also raised $46 million as chairman of his education foundation, The Foundation for Excellence in Education, his campaign said.
Still, those contributions may be “great and wonderful,” but they are not the “equivalent to a donation out of your income,” said Joseph Thorndike, a tax historian for Tax Analysts, a nonprofit provider of tax news and analysis.
Thorndike said the public is interested in a candidate’s openness more than the details. He noted Mitt Romney in 2012 created a problem for himself by declining to release his returns until late in the campaign.
“People are interested in actual transparency,” Thorndike said. “One of things is his willingness to put it out there, for now it looks like Bush is winning on that score.”
Releasing the paperwork – which isn’t required by law – is one of the pieces of information voters have come to expect about presidential candidates. And while they provide a lot of information, the returns don’t show everything. For example, Bush did not provide the names of charities to which he contributed. Obama as president has itemized his contributions, including $22,012 in 2014 to the Fisher House Foundation, a network of homes where family members can stay when an injured service member is being treated.
“There is a lot of opacity in a tax return,” Thorndike said. “They are very revealing and yet not ultimately completely revealing, either.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the dollar amount of Carly Fiorina’s contributions in 2013 and the percentage of Clinton contributions to charity in 2002.