Contrary to some critics’ lament that these days “everything has a price,” the news on volunteering in America is very good. Volunteering is up significantly, even among young people. A huge number of Americans do volunteer work—for all the demands on two-wage-earner families and the allure of television sitcoms. ABC News and the Washington Post found, in a 1997 survey, 58 percent reporting that in the past year they had volunteered for a church, charity, or other community group—up from 44 percent in l984, when the same question was asked. Roughly half who claimed they had volunteered said that they do it regularly. As shown in Figure 1, that’s about a quarter of the entire adult population.
Other studies show a similar upward progression in voluntarism during the contemporary post-industrial era. Polls done by Gallup and Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA) have asked the same question on personal involvement in social service work since 1977, and these data show the percentage of the public thus engaged having roughly doubled over the span (Figure 2). Surveys taken by the Roper Center for Reader’s Digest found 53 percent saying in 1994 they had volunteered at least once over the past year; in 1997 the proportion was 59 percent. Changes of this magnitude shouldn’t be taken seriously when they occur only in single instances. But when study after study shows the same pattern, and trend lines are clearly etched, we should sit up and take notice. The levels of volunteer service that Americans are now reporting are substantially higher than those reported a decade or two ago.
When CBS News and the New York Times asked their respondents whether they had “personally gotten involved in giving your time and energy to a volunteer or community service activity” in the past year or two, 59 percent said yes (poll of January 1997). This survey then sought to “fine-tune” the response by pushing harder. “I mean not just belonging to a group, but actually working in some way to help others for no pay.” The proportion now saying they had volunteered dropped—but only modestly, to 49 percent of respondents.
The proportion of the population that volunteers dwarfs that which participates regularly in established civic organizations. The same CBS News/New York Times poll of January 1997 that found 49 percent having worked to help others for no pay over the past year, reported just 20 percent saying they “regularly attend or participate in a civic organization or service club, like the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club, or the PTA . . . .”
Independent Sector is an organization that monitors voluntarism and charitable giving and promotes these activities. Surveys it has sponsored since 1987 (with the fieldwork done by Gallup) classified 80 million adult Americans as volunteers (45 percent of the population) in 1987 and 93 million as volunteers in 1995 (49 percent of adults). The 1995 study estimated that the average volunteer gave about four hours per week, or more than two hundred hours over a year. All of these estimates are, of course, rough approximations. The key finding is that most research shows the proportions of Americans doing volunteer service both high and rising.
By any measure the reported rates of voluntarism in the United States are extraordinary. In a study done by Princeton Survey Research Associates in April 1997, 83 percent of all respondents said they had volunteered at least once a month for at least one of a series of civic activities. Presented with a list of nine avenues for voluntarism, just 17 percent said they did not participate regularly in any of them, and just 12 percent volunteered in only one. An extraordinary 29 percent of all respondents said they volunteered regularly in four to six of the nine, and 10 percent in seven or more of these areas. The same PSRA survey asked respondents whether they volunteered through (a) a religious organization, (b) a school in the community, (c) some neighborhood organization, (d) groups based in their place of work, or (e) some national organization. Seventy-five percent reported having volunteered through at least one of these facilities—and 20 percent through three of them, and 10 percent through four or five.
Church 1, State 0
Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that religion had served in this country as a principal ally of political democracy and civic engagement. He noted, for example, how the first public school systems emerged in Connecticut and Massachusetts out of religious commitments. The Puritans insisted that each person needed to be able to read God’s word directly through the Bible; and pursuing this they established school systems to achieve universal literacy. “The reader will undoubtedly have remarked the preamble of these enactments: in America religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of the divine laws leads man to civil freedom.” Tocqueville went on to argue that, in sharp contrast to the European experience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the United States “liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims.”
Modern-day surveys support and amplify Tocqueville’s observations. Without exception, to my knowledge, they have found a strong correlation between levels of civic engagement and church attendance. For example, one survey taken by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia in late l996 found just 29 percent of those who reported never attending religious services saying they had done volunteer work over the past year, compared with 49 percent of those who attended church weekly and 61 percent who said their church attendance was even more frequent (Figure 3).
Early in 1997, prior to the convening of the President’s “Summit for America’s Future” in Philadelphia, the Pew Research Center commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates to conduct major surveys of volunteer activity nationally and in Philadelphia itself. The Pew research reported levels of activity nationally comparable to what other recent studies have found. As in most central cities, a relatively high proportion of Philadelphia’s population needs economic assistance and lives in single-parent households; so it isn’t surprising that its rates of volunteering fell below the national average. But participation in Philadelphia was still substantial—22 percent said they had volunteered for one or more organizations to help the poor, elderly, or homeless (compared with 34 percent nationally); 16 percent had volunteered in a school tutoring program (22 percent nationally); and 27 percent had worked without pay for a church or religious group (39 percent nationally).
One of the most interesting findings of the Pew surveys comes from comparison of levels of volunteering for religious and other nonpolitical civic organizations on the one hand and for political activity on the other. The latter lags far behind the former. Church is up; state is down. But this is hardly cause for concern, despite the hand-wringing of some who see government as the center of public life. Politics just isn’t as important for most of us as other facets of civic engagement. We settled fundamental issues of how government should be organized a long time ago, and we opted decisively for limited government. With political conflict relatively muted, we feel able to pay little attention to the game of politics much of the time and to instead focus on civic activities that really interest us.
The Next Generation
Perhaps older folks always worry about the next generation, fearing that it just may not “be up to it”—may not be willing to work hard enough, for example, or may expect too much to come too easily, or may adopt less demanding standards. Yet, the record seems clear that in American experience young people have typically resembled their elders in core values. My earlier research showed that claims of generational distinctiveness—whether for the “twentysomethings,” the “boomers,” or the “Depressions generation”—have often been wildly overstated. As people grow older, they assume new social roles and responsibilities, acquire different interests, experience changing needs. But young Americans differ from their elders in essentially the same way now as in the past. They’re just younger.
True generational effects, as opposed to recurring age differences, are weak in most areas of our social and political life. When Gallup asked its respondents in a 1994 survey which they enjoyed more, “the hours when you are on your job, or the hours when you are not on your job?” it found lots fewer 18- and 19-year-olds than those 40 to 59 saying “on the job.” But Gallup had asked this same question in 1955 and got the same response pattern. Then, only 30 percent of respondents aged 21 to 29 said they enjoyed their on-the-job hours more, compared with 47 percent of those aged 40 to 59 and 61 percent aged 60 and older. These age differences don’t point to a generational shift in attitudes toward work. Young people simply tend to have less interesting jobs; they’ve just begun to work their way through their careers. And they have more things they want to do off the job.
It’s the same thing with many other social values. The country’s religious life is sometimes thought to be caught up in generational shifts. The sixties generation was supposed to be much less religious than its predecessors. But when we have asked people about their religious beliefs— for example, whether they believe in God, or the idea of Heaven—we haven’t found any significant differences separating the young, the middle-aged, and the old. When we turn to current religion-related behavior, such as rates of church attendance, we do find large age differences. Today’s youth are less inclined than their elders to describe religion as immediately important to them. But surveys in earlier periods found the same thing. People in their late teens and their twenties typically have been less regular church-goers than those with growing families or than those whose age gives them a more vivid sense of their mortality. We are now seeing a slew of “gee whiz” stories about boomers “returning to church,” but the development is in fact just another case of the normal age progression. Boomers are getting older.
In volunteering and other forms of helping others, teens and young adults look much like older Americans, though they get involved in different ways. A survey of teenagers done by CBS News and the New York Times in April 1998 found 58 percent of them reporting that they had done volunteer work in the past year—“actually working in some way to help others for no pay.” They are comparably ready to take individual responsibility through direct engagement. At the same time, young people are less likely to contribute to charities; most of them, of course, haven’t yet acquired independent financial means. That young people are less inclined to volunteer their services through community groups is also primarily a product of routine age-cycle experiences: This activity generally comes later as they settle into their own jobs and family life, independent of their parents. Overall, there’s no indication that the “next generation” of Americans is less civic-minded than its predecessors.
Experience with volunteering and other community service reflects a pattern that sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has described in terms of “the more, the more.” He means that the more likely people are to participate in one form of civic activity or another and the busier they are professionally, the more likely they are—despite being busy—to do still more. Along these lines, a 1992 Gallup survey for Independent Sector found that a significantly higher proportion of teenagers holding part-time jobs (65 percent) did volunteer work than teens who had no paid employment (55 percent of whom said they had recently volunteered).
The Great Disruption
Some organizations like the American Red Cross have found it harder in recent years to recruit volunteer help than they did in, say, the 1950s. But a host of other groups have seen their volunteer ranks increase dramatically. The volunteer program of the Prison Fellowship Ministries has, for example, almost doubled in the past decade. Some older groups thought to have been especially hard hit by the big increase in the proportion of women in the paid labor force have in fact seen volunteering hold its own or even increase. The Girl Scouts are a case in point. They have more volunteers or “adult members” now in the 1990s than in any preceding period. The national office of Girl Scouts of the USA reported roughly 380,000 adult members in 1950, 535,000 in 1980, and 805,000 in 1996. Volunteering in support of Girl Scout activities is higher now than a half century ago, even when population increases are taken into account.
This said, scouting’s volunteer ranks were reduced sharply between 1960 and 1980, dropping by roughly 240,000 over the span. Since 1980, the Girl Scouts have rebounded strongly. By itself this might not mean much: Civic organizations are always confronting developments quite special and specific that impact on their membership and participation rates. But the Girl Scout experience seems to be fairly common. Other organizations saw their participation levels drop in the late 1960s and 1970s, only to recover and move ahead again during the past 15 years or so. Boy Scout membership fell by nearly 2 million in the 1970s; it has since climbed by about 1.3 million.
PTA membership plunged from the late 1960s through the early 1980s but has since come back significantly—despite the fact that the decision of many local parent-teacher groups to operate independently apparently isn’t being reversed. Relatedly, NORC’s General Social Surveys reported a decline over the 1970s in the percentage of parents saying they participated in school service groups; again, the low point was reached in 1980. Since then, the percentage of parents participating in school service groups has climbed and was about 13 points higher in 1994 than it had been 14 years earlier. By a host of different measures, the late 1960s on the one side and the late 1970s or early 1980s on the other seem important boundaries in civic participation.
We lack evidence that firmly establishes this apparent pattern of short-term decline followed by recovery. Much of the systematic collection of relevant data didn’t commence until sometime in the 1970s. These data clearly show large gains in participation since the 1970s, but leave us uncertain about what went on before. Still, findings such as those in Figure 2 suggest that the 1970s may have been an aberrational decade in which there was a short-term fall in many forms of civic engagement. It’s striking that only 26 percent of adult Americans interviewed by Gallup in 1977 said they were involved in any charity or social service activity, whereas the proportion was twice as great (54 percent) when the same question was posed by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 1995.
That these fragmentary findings may point to a real pattern gains credence against the backdrop of the socioeconomic and political experience of the late 1960s and the 1970s. This was a time of growing opposition to the war effort in Vietnam, especially on college campuses across the country. A president was forced to resign amidst the Watergate scandals. The 1970s saw what was for the United States unprecedentedly high inflation, spurred in part by “oil shocks.” Motorists found themselves waiting in line for hours to buy gasoline—a commodity whose ready availability had always been taken for granted (except during World War II rationing). The seventies closed with the seizure of American embassy personnel in Teheran and a botched rescue attempt in which much of American troops’ military equipment broke down.
It would be surprising if such a string of errors, disappointments, and frustrations had no impact on citizens’ confidence. We would expect so many dispiriting events to discourage many regular forms of civic participation.
But we would also expect that a fairly rapid return to “normalcy” would leave civic life largely untouched—and permit socioeconomic forces to work their way. We are far from problem-free today, but then when were we? The point is that the extreme buffeting the American social and political system took in the l970s has largely ended.
Voluntarism and other facets of civic engagement are shaped by three separate sets of factors: (1) core moral commitments, such as understandings of individual responsibility; (2) stages of socioeconomic development, which determine relevant resources; and (3) short-term forces that variously encourage or dispirit the population. There is no indication that the first of these has moved much from its historic course. The second apparently has; the postindustrial setting provides greater resources for engagement by ordinary citizens. The third factor would be expected to produce ups and downs within the structure shaped by the first two. Some decline in the 1970s in citizens’ confidence and levels of community participation—though hardly a collapse of civic America—would be a likely outcome of the decade’s many wrong turns.
Yet contemporary America is far from having dissipated the country’s reserve of social capital. We really do have a chance to pass on to succeeding generations a richer supply than any predecessor enjoyed. And for all the hand-wringing, lots of Americans understand this. The record compiled here hasn’t been compiled by a public that’s given up on the demands of citizenship.
Dr. Everett Carll Ladd is director and president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. His book The Ladd Report, from which the article is adapted, was published this summer by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 1999 by Everett Carll Ladd. Reprinted by permission.