Why charity begins – and stays – at home

In 1987, an 18-month old baby named Jessica McClure fell down a narrow disused well in a Texas backyard. It took two and a half days to rescue her, bloodied but alive and alert, after an astonishing media circus. The rescue won a Pulitzer prize for the photographer who captured it, and inspired a TV movie. “Well-wishers” from across the US donated so much money that when Jessica turns 25 she’ll receive a fat trust fund. Media speculation puts it at a nice round $1m.

Jessica’s case was uniquely famous, but $1m is not a remarkable sum of money to save an American life. Government agencies regularly plug larger sums into their cost-benefit calculations, and few voters think they are wrong to do so.

To some extent that’s cheap talk – we’re talking about spending each other’s money, after all. Yet even if we wouldn’t spend $1m of our own money, we would all be willing to make financial sacrifices to save a specific baby. Imagine that you had been passing the back yard at the moment baby Jessica had slipped down the well, had rushed over and peered down to see her just within reach, snagged by a fraying babygro. If you lunged down and grabbed her you could save her life at no risk to your own, but would ruin your new suit – price tag, £300. Would you do it? Unthinkingly and without regret.

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Tim Harford’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.