The Tocqueville Files: The Other Civic America

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. Andrew Greeley argues that by one measure — volunteering — Americans continue to have higher rates of participation than do citizens of other countries; he argues that Americans' stronger religious affiliations explain the difference. And in "The Big Tilt: Participatory Inequality in America," Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady argue that what matters is not just how many participate, but who they are. In the United States, class disparities are more pronounced than elsewhere and, by some measures, are increasing. But, contrary to Father Greeley, Verba and his co-authors see little hope that America's higher religious-based participation can make up the difference, at least when it comes to political representation of those at the bottom.

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.



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 people
  • 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

Subscribe to The American Prospect

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.


Volunteering by Country (in millions of people)

Volunteering by Country (Graph)
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 effect.

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 the Netherlands.

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 twenties.

The Rise in American Volunteering

Grouping subjects by year of birth shows that volunteering increased within almost every age group during the 1980s.
The Rise in American Volunteering (Graph)
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.



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 items—church attendance and membership in religious organizations—reduces 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 countries—Britain, Northern Ireland, Denmark, and Iceland. (The multiple regression analysis reported here can be found at

"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.

Volunteer Rates if Religious Activity Were the Same

Volunteer Rates if Religious Activity Were the Same
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.



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 contribution—some $70 billion—would 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 social capital.

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.



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 percent—not 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.

You may also like