A majority of Americans who received a stimulus check used at least a portion of it for food, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, the BLS probably didn’t have Carl Schwenk in mind when it reported on the use of stimulus payments during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of spending the money to buy food for himself, the Cressona, Pennsylvania resident used his stimulus check to purchase hundreds of hoagies for local families in need.
$1,200 Stimulus Check For 308 Hoagies
Schwenk decided to pay it forward not only to help families struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, but also to support a hometown establishment, Jean’s Place. “I had my stimulus check. Let’s give away 100 subs,” he told WNEP. “This is a pandemic, people are having problems, people are worrying about feeding their families, let’s enlighten their life for one day. Let’s give away 100 subs. Well, that 100 subs turned out to be 308. I don’t know how that happened, but it did,” Schwenk added.
Those who know Schwenk were not surprised by his generosity. “He’s such a giving, caring person. He’ll help anybody,’ said his wife, Deborah. Others echoed her sentiments including Jean Biertempfel, who owns Jean’s Place. “I went to high school with him. I’ve known him a long time, so I think it’s great. It’s really great,” she said.
Schwenk ended up giving away 308 subs, but received such a strong response that he doubled down on a second day of free hoagies. This time, he used money that he and his wife had been saving to buy a new carpet for their home. “The response from the people was so overwhelming. I could cry it was so nice, they just loved it and they needed it, so we decided we’re going to do it again,” he exclaimed. His goal for the second weekend was to outdo the first and donate 309 hoagies, for a total of 617.
Others Have Also Donated Stimulus Checks
There have been other initiatives to donate stimulus check funds, albeit in slightly more traditional manners. Charity Navigator, an organization that evaluates and rates non-profits, saw a correlation between disbursement of stimulus checks and charitable giving. After the IRS remitted payments, the organization saw “the highest traffic that we’ve had,” said Kevin Scally, Charity Navigator’s chief relationship officer. The amount of donations also tracked significantly higher than the same time period a year ago.
As another example, a trio of Maine women created an online campaign to #PledgeMyStimulus. Rev. Tamara Torres McGovern, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, and Wendy Blackwell-Moore, a consultant, teamed up with their local state representative, Victoria Morales, to encourage people to donate. “This isn’t my money, it’s money we all paid in through taxes and it’s being distributed communally in hopes of lessening the impacts of this time,” Torres McGovern told ABC News. “There was sort of a realization of ‘wow, my neighbors are in much more acute need than I am, is there something I can do, a way to leverage this check to decrease the need around me?’”
Using Money To Help Others Increases Happiness
While Schwenk and others gave away their money, science suggests they received something perhaps more valuable in return: happiness. Research has shown that using one’s money to help others, known as pro-social spending, increases an individual’s happiness. “When we use our resources to benefit other people, we actually can end up being happier ourselves,” said Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, an expert on pro-social spending and the co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.
In one of her studies, Dr. Dunn found that those who gave to charity tended to be happier on average than those who didn’t. “In order to match the benefit to happiness of giving to charity,” Dr. Dunn explained, “you would have to have about twice as much income.” This held true across all income brackets.
There are three key ingredients to transform “good deeds into good feelings,” according to research by Dunn and others: connection, impact, and choice.
People are more likely to experience high levels of happiness when they feel a strong sense of connection with the people or the cause they are helping. In “Happy Money” Dunn and co-author, Professor Michael Norton, showcase DonorsChoose.org as a strong example of an organization that is able to create a sense of connection for donors, even when the recipients are total strangers.
The non-profit, which lets individuals donate supplies or money to fund specific projects for students at a specific school, creates a strong link between the donor and project that extends beyond the actual donation. This includes having teachers and students send thank-you notes to donors and nudging donors to reciprocate. “When we deliver the initial thank-you note to the donor, our first ask is not for money,” said founder Charles Best. “Instead, we ask the donor to write back to the classroom, and we measure success in the volume of two-way correspondence that we see between donors and classrooms.”
When individuals can directly connect their donation to the difference it is making on a cause, “that seems to really unlock the emotional benefits of generosity,” says Dunn. For example, Dunn and Norton conducted research comparing donations to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and to Spread the Net. While both are incredibly important and admirable causes, the two found that it was easier for individuals to connect their donation to Spread the Net with tangible impact. Why?
Spread the Net’s messaging focuses on individuals contributing $10 to send one malaria net to sub-Saharan Africa and ties the impact of that contribution in its slogan: “A child dies needlessly from malaria every minute. One bed net can protect up to five children for five years. 1 net. 10 bucks. Save lives.” While UNICEF’s mission is crucial, the two found that “it can be hard to see how a small donation to such a large, nebulous organization will make a concrete difference in a child’s life.”
Dunn and Norton’s research found that when individuals gave money to Spread the Net, they experienced a bigger happiness boost than when they gave to UNICEF. They also point to another benefit of enabling donors to see impact, which is that by “maximizing the emotional benefits of giving, the strategy can make people more willing to behave generously in the future.”
The freedom to choose if and how to direct charitable contributions is a critical factor in how happy people feel when donating. “The quickest way to strip the joy of giving away. . . is to make people feel like they’ve been forced to give,” notes Dunn.
A study conducted at the University of Oregon showed the value of choice using brain scans. Researches gave volunteers $100, who were then placed inside a scanner that monitored their brain activity as they donated money. One group was able to choose whether they wanted to donate money, whereas donations were mandatory for another group, almost akin to a tax. The study found that even mandatory donations activated rewards areas of the brain; however, the activation level in the reward areas was much higher for the group who had agency to donate.
Schwenk, who donated the hoagies, said that giving away food helped him feel better during a tough time. “I’ve been in chemotherapy the past six months,” Schwenk said. “This just keeps my mind off other things.” Schwenk’s acts of generosity also fit the bill of Dunn’s research. He made the choice to donate, he was able to immediately see the impact of his contribution, and he felt a strong sense of connection because he was helping individuals in his hometown.
“I can say I did something for the community, and that makes me feel good,” he said. That sounds like the kind of win-win outcome more Americans could use these days.
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