Editors' Note: Is civic life in decline? Just over a year
ago, we published Robert Putnam's "The Strange Disappearance
of Civic America" (TAP, Winter 1996), which led
to much discussion in our pages and elsewhere. Concern about civic
decline has now become a staple of public rhetoric. But was the
problem accurately diagnosed in the first place?
In this issue, we publish two important contributions to the debate.
Since the time of the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards, Americans
have lamented the decline of their society. Something has gone
terribly wrong, we hear; the future looks grim unless we repent.
This may be effective homiletics, but it is usually not very good
social science. Massive trends with enormous, society-shaping
impact are rare; more commonly, changes don't all move in the
same direction. Thus the metaphor "sexual revolution"
suggests a shift toward more sexual freedom in all areas. In fact,
while premarital sex has increased (probably because of the birth
control pill), extramarital sex has not.
Recent critics have lamented a supposedly general decline in civic
concern and social responsibility. Among the astonishing developments
of the last decade and a half, however, is a notable increase
of volunteer service in our society. The rate of volunteering
in America is higher than anywhere else in the world. The United
States is also a country with very high levels of religious devotion,
more than any country in the West save Ireland. Might these two
aspects of American society be related? To put the question in
terms that social scientists have helped to popularize, is religious
practice a source of social capital? The evidence I present here
suggests that it is.
VOLUNTEERING IN EUROPE AND AMERICA
Two studies of volunteering in Western countries, the European
Value Studies (EVS) conducted in 1981 and 1991, provide data about
comparative trends that help to answer whether religious practice
contributes to America's high rate of volunteering. The more recent
1991 survey asked respondents in 16 countries whether they "belong
to" or are "currently doing unpaid voluntary work for"
any of the following organizations:
- social welfare services for elderly, handicapped, or deprived
- religious or church organizations
- education, arts, music, or cultural activities
- trade unions
- political parties or groups
- local community action on issues like poverty, employment,
house, and racial equality
- Third World development or human rights
- conservation, the environment, ecology
- professional associations
- youth work (for example, scouts, guides, youth clubs, etc.)
- sports or recreation
- women's groups
- peace movement
- animal rights
- voluntary organizations concerned with health
- other groups
Adding up the number of people who volunteered for at least one
activity provides a basis for estimating the proportion of a population
volunteering in 1991 (see "Volunteering by Country,"
below). The rate of volunteering in the United States, 47 percent
of the population, is the highest and is consistent with the proportion
reported in 1992 survey conducted by Virginia Hodgkinson, who
is vice president for research and executive director of the National
Center for Charitable Statistics at Independent Sector, and
Murray Weitzman, a private economic consultant who was formerly
chief of staff for the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Studies done
in England and France approximate the findings of the Value Study
for those two countries.
|Source: European Value Study 1990.|
Only Canada had a rate comparable to that of the United States.
Most European countries reported rates between 20 percent and
30 percent; three Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands had
higher rates (between 30 percent and 40 percent), while Portugal
and Great Britain were lower.
The survey also showed how volunteering varies by sex, age, and
education. Men are marginally more likely to volunteer than women,
and people between 30 and 50 are more likely to volunteer than
those who are younger or older. Hodgkinson and Weitzman have
shown the same differences by age for the United States, but they
report that women are more likely to volunteer than men (53 percent
to 49 percent). The seeming contradiction between the two studies
is a result of differences in wording; the EVS questionnaire enumerates
more activities that men favor. Volunteering in the EVS sample
also correlates strongly with education. People who continued
in school after they were 20 years old were twice as likely to
report some kind of volunteering as those who had left school
before they were 12.
Both frequency of church attendance and membership in church organizations
correlate strongly with voluntary service. People who attend services
once a week or more are approximately twice as likely to volunteer
as those who attend rarely if ever. Moreover, while organizational
membership (a sum of all secular organizational memberships) does,
as one might expect, powerfully predict voluntary service, membership
in a religious organization has its own significant independent
Denomination in those six countries where there are sufficiently
large samples of both Catholics and Protestants to make comparisons
possible has an impact only in Canada, where Protestants are significantly
more likely to volunteer than Catholics, and in Northern Ireland,
where the reverse is true. There are no significant differences
by denomination in Britain, the United States, West Germany, and
Unfortunately, the 1981 EVS survey listed only 11 of the 16 types
of voluntary activity enumerated in 1991. The change in the question
makes strict comparison across time questionable, especially on
individual items; the addition of 5 new types of activity seems
likely to have led to a decline in positive responses to the original
11. In only three countries did statistically significant change
in the proportion volunteering occur: Austria, where there was
a 7 percentage point decline and the North American countries,
where the proportion volunteering (as measured by the original
1981 items) increased, by 6 points in Canada and 10 points in
the United States.
The figure below, "The Rise in American Volunteering,"
shows that this increase in the United States was especially pronounced
among people born since 1940. Each cohort not only increased its
volunteer rate over that of ten years earlier but had a higher
rate than its predecessor cohort did when it was the same age.
Thus the cohort born in the 1940s not only has almost doubled
its volunteer rate in the ten-year period, it is also 14 percentage
points ahead of where the 1930s cohort was when it was the same
age. The increase in volunteering in America has been created
by the "Baby Boomers," the "Me Generation,"
and "Generation X," all of whom, if one is to believe
the popular media, are inherently selfish and "uncommitted."
The increase has probably continued, moreover, because even those
born during the 1970s and hence at the most only 20 at the time
of the 1991 survey were already twice as likely to volunteer as
those born in the 1960s were 10 years ago when they were in their
|Grouping subjects by year of birth shows that volunteering increased within almost every age group during the 1980s.|
|Source: European Values Study 1981 and 1990.|
Americans born in the 1920s, however, also show an increase in
volunteering over the past ten years. The increase, then, is affecting
major segments of the population regardless of age. A similar
phenomenon is taking place in Canada. There too the more recent
cohorts account for much of the change. There too volunteering
has increased through the 1980s among those born in the 1920s.
Half of the increase in both countries can be accounted for by
a combination of changes in the age composition of the population
(more people in prime volunteering years) and greater political
and social involvement.
WHY AMERICANS VOLUNTEER MORE
Contrary then to what one might believe from reading both Robert
Bellah, principal author of Habits of the Heart, and Pope
John Paul, II, Americans do not appear to be selfish individualists
when it comes to volunteering. Americans are significantly more
likely to report volunteer service than citizens of 13 of the
other 14 countries included in this analysis, with Canada the
only country whose volunteer levels even approach the United States's.
What, then, explains Americans' higher levels of voluntary service?
Church attendance and membership in religious organizations correlate
with volunteering in all the countries (save in Ireland where
church attendance does not correlate with volunteering because
the attendance rate is so high). Even in the countries where religious
activity is not high, as in the Scandinavian countries, religious
behavior still has a significant impact on voluntary service.
In contemporary social analysis, the procedure for estimating
religious influence is to consider other social structural variables
first, so that whatever impact religion may have will be residual
(that is, it cannot be accounted for by social structure). In
the EVS data, age, sex, income, and education account for 36 percent
of cross-national variation in volunteer rates. Adding secular
organizational membership accounts for 11 percent more. In other
words, almost half of the difference in volunteering among the
nations can be accounted for by these basic aspects of social
structure. Finally, adding the two religious itemschurch attendance
and membership in religious organizationsreduces the unexplained
variation to 15 percent. Thus even after the social structural
variables are taken into account, 38 percent of the differences
among the countries in propensity to volunteer is attributable
to religious activity. When all of these are taken into account,
significant differences exist between the United State on the
one hand and only four other countriesBritain, Northern Ireland,
Denmark, and Iceland. (The multiple regression analysis reported
here can be found at www.agreeley.com.)
"Volunteer Rates If Religious Activity Were the Same"
(see below) shows the volunteering rates of the various countries
if they had the same levels of religious practices as the United
States. The differences here are much smaller than those actually
found in the survey. Sweden, Norway, and Canada would have higher
rates than the United States, while Britain would continue to
be substantially lower and all the other countries would be 6
percentage points or less lower than the United States. The American
"advantage" in volunteering is patently the result of
the higher levels of American religious practice.
|Source: European Values Study 1990.|
Motivations for volunteering differ considerably across
countries. In the United States and Canada, people emphasize idealistic
and moral reasons for volunteering, while in Europe they emphasize
more pragmatic reasons. In both cases, the reasons people give,
of course, may be the culturally fashionable rationalizations
for generosity. In his important 1991 book, Acts of Compassion,
Robert Wuthnow attempts to reconcile the high levels of volunteering
in the United States with the "individualism" of Americans.
The data here suggest, however, that the real individualists are
the Dutch and the Scandinavians and the real idealists or "communalists"
are the North Americans.
Religious devotion and religious group membership could be expected
to influence volunteering that is church related, but do they
also influence volunteering that is not church related? When religious
volunteering is excluded, American rates (34 percent) fall somewhat
beneath those of Canada (38 percent) and Sweden (38 percent) and
are virtually equal to those of Norway (34 percent), Iceland (35
percent), and the Netherlands (33 percent). The American advantage
in volunteering is concentrated in church-related voluntary efforts.
Twenty-eight percent of Americans volunteer for church-related
services, as do 15 percent of Canadians. In all other countries
the rates are lower than 10 percent.
Church attendance has a positive impact, however, on secular voluntary
service as does membership in a church-related organization. The
correlations between these two variables and all volunteering
is 0.16 and 0.32 and between them and secular volunteering is
0.09 and 0.19.
HOW MUCH IS RELIGION WORTH?
According to Hodgkinson and Weitzman, the mean number of weekly
volunteer hours for an American who does volunteer is 4.2 hours.
They calculate that Americans perform more than 15 billion hours
of volunteer service each year. Assuming a volunteer hour to be
worth $11.58 (the average hourly wage for nonagricultural workers
in 1991), the volunteer input to the economy in 1992 was $176
billion. Since the difference between the United States and West
Germany (47 percent versus 30 percent) can be explained entirely
by differences in religious practice, one can say that if Americans
were like the West Germans in their religious behavior, almost
40 percent of that contributionsome $70 billionwould be lost.
But how does religion mobilize people for voluntary service? This
brings us back to our earlier question about whether religion
is a form of "social capital," a term introduced into
American sociology by the late James Coleman. Social capital refers
to the "stock" of social relations and shared values
that enable people to cooperate. In 1988, Coleman wrote, "Like
other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible
the achievement of certain goals. . . . Unlike other forms of
capital, social capital inheres in the structure of relations
between actors." If church attendance and membership in religious
organizations lead to voluntary service, we might hypothesize
that the relationships sustained by those activities generate
In 1992 and 1994, Independent Sector, an organization that focuses
on nonprofit institutions, conducted a survey that helps to test
that hypothesis. This survey found that 52 percent of Americans
had volunteered and that 28 percent of the volunteers, by far
the largest single group, volunteered for religious projects.
Moreover, of the volunteers, 34 percent cited relationships related
to their religion as being responsible for their volunteering;
the suggestion to volunteer came from a religious organization
or from someone the volunteer knew at his or her church, synagogue,
or temple. Moreover, a third of the purely secular volunteers
(those who did not volunteer for specifically religious activities)
also related their service to the influence of a relationship
based in their religion. Finally, the patterns in the teenage
sample were similar to the adult sample, thus suggesting that
the volunteer phenomenon is likely to be part of American life
for many years to come.
Religion seems to focus idealism into projects. Two clusters of
values measured "idealism" and "realism" in
the adult population; 50 percent of those who were high on the
"idealism" scale were volunteers as opposed to 39 percent
of those who were high on the "realism" scale. More
than half of the "idealists" reported the influence
of religion-based relationships as opposed to fewer than a third
of the "realists." The combination of cultural values
and contact with religious organizations accounts for much of
the volunteering effort.
The impact of religious organization on volunteering is also illustrated
by data from the U.S. Office of Education showing that students
in Catholic high schools are more likely to volunteer (even factoring
out that marvelous Catholic oxymoron, required volunteering) than
students in public high schools or other private schools. Moreover,
data from a survey of college students conducted by Alexander
Astin at the University of California at Los Angeles, show that
students in Catholic colleges are more likely to volunteer than
the national average.
IS VOLUNTEERING IN DECLINE?
Some critics have seen a decline in volunteering in recent years,
as demonstrated by changes in volunteering reported by Gallup
in a biennial poll for Independent Sector. But the trend isn't
clear. According to this survey, the proportion of Americans who
volunteer rose from 45.3 percent in 1987 to 54.4 percent in 1989,
then fell to 51.1 percent in 1991 and to 47.7 percent in 1993,
and then rose again to 48.8 percent in 1995. Such variations are
not unusual in repeated surveys and are almost always considered
to be a "float and bounce" phenomenon that does not
represent real change. The standard technique in such cases is
to pool years to determine whether there is a genuine trend. If
one pools the data from the late 1980s and from the early 1990s,
the rate for 1987-89 is 49.8 percent and for 1991-95 is 49.2 percentnot
much of a trend.
The EVS data suggest, on the other hand, a 10 percentage point
increase between 1981 and 1990 from 37 percent to 47 percent in
volunteering in the United States. (The latter figure is lower
than the lowest of the Independent Sector estimates.) The EVS
data also show strong increases among younger people. There is
little reason to doubt that in the present decade approximately
half of the Americans older than 18 do volunteer and that this
is the highest volunteer rate in the Western world.
My argument in this paper is limited. Voluntary service
is a sign of generosity, civic responsibility, and ethical concern.
It has increased rather than decreased since 1981. It is higher
in the United States than in any other of the 16 countries studied.
The American lead over other countries is largely the result of
higher levels of religious practice in this country. Religious
structures generate social capital that motivates people to volunteer,
especially those who already have idealistic orientations.
I do not contend that Americans are the most generous people in
the world; rather I assert merely that they are the most likely
to volunteer (though they are also the most likely to make higher
voluntary financial contributions as a proportion of income too).
I do not deny that in other areas of behavior Americans might
lack personal or social commitment; I merely suggest that this
particular commitment should not be ignored (as ABC News did last
year in a presentation on "The Disappearing Volunteer").
I do not contend that volunteers are the solution to all the nation's
social problems; I merely argue that they make an important contribution
to easing some problems. I do not contend that the volunteer movement
is a sign of a massive transformation of American civic responsibility
and an enormous improvement in their "habits of the heart";
I merely suggest that it is a sign of improvement in a particular
form of admittedly imperfect generosity.
Colleagues have suggested to me that I must agree with Charles
Murray's view that charity should replace public support for those
in distress. I cannot imagine by what leap of the imagination
they think so. It is one thing to report on the impressive volunteer
phenomenon and quite another to say that it will permit the government
to withdraw from most of its social services. Nor can I understand
the charge from other colleagues that my position is "conservative."
Why should it be conservative or liberal to see both positive
and negative trends in American society?
I freely concede that this limited and gray-toned message doesn't
have much homiletic value for those who would play the role of
Puritan divines or of the prophets in the Jewish scriptures. But
these are the facts: The North American countries, often dismissed
as selfish and materialistic, are the most likely to have high
rates of voluntary service, and those rates rose in the 1980s
while they remained stable in Europe. This generous, religiously
driven "habit of the heart" makes a major contribution
to the economy and to the general welfare of the country. American
commentators, serious and popular, rarely note the positive role
religion can and does play in American life and instead tend to
see religion as exacerbating conflicts. They often speak of "culture
wars," although empirical evidence is hard to find that Americans
are at war culturally with one another (other than in the public
pronouncements of some religious leaders). There are many more
religiously motivated volunteers than there are activists engaged
in culture wars. Any fair assessment of American society and culture
at the present time cannot ignore that fact.
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