The state of the union in regard to volunteering, which typically rises during the holidays, is not strong. In September 2004, nearly 29 percent of adults volunteered, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In September 2014, just over 25 percent did so. Most of us chase our own bliss instead of volunteering to bless others.
The BLS began tracking volunteering only in 2002, but historical research indicates that the decade-long decline is only a continuation of a century-long trend. In September 1914, as great armies clashed in Europe, “little platoons” in the U.S. continued to persevere. They were continuing what Alexis de Tocqueville had called the biggest difference between the old world and the new: In America, people formed religious and civic associations in order to work together for public benefit, instead of growing government to serve this purpose.
The decline culminating in our recent decade-long drop began 85 years ago as the Depression cut into the time and money available for associations, just as needs grew. Instead of bulwarking volunteer groups, government offered a new deal: Pay your taxes to hire professionals, then stay home. Americans, forced to pay others for social services, became less likely to volunteer themselves. Today, those who take a second job to pay taxes have little time for volunteering.
The 2014 BLS numbers show that women volunteer at a rate 29 percent higher than men, but when more mothers move from part-time to full-time employment, volunteering declines. Married persons volunteer 49 percent more than the never-married, so as the latter category grows, volunteering declines. Those with children under age 18 volunteer 37 percent more than those without, so reduced volunteering accompanies childlessness.
Furthermore, the employed are more likely to volunteer than those not looking for work, so recent increases in the number of non-workers would seem to correlate with non-volunteering. Religious organizations are usually the most frequent recipients of volunteer hours, but if religious participation is declining, it is no surprise that volunteering also declines.
And yet, what goes down can go up. In 2002 and 2003, as 9/11 made Americans look beyond themselves and as some leaders urged “compassionate conservatism,” the percentage of adults who volunteered jumped by 5 percent. That increase held for two years before the long decline began again. Furthermore, while the one-fourth of Americans who volunteer do so on the average of one hour per week, extreme volunteers fill out some nooks and crannies.
For example, retired Christians known as SOWERS, short for servants on wheels ever ready, drive their RVs around the country and volunteer for a month at a time at a variety of ministries, putting in three to six hours per day as carpenters, plumbers, tutors and painters. In the words of the organization’s website, “there are opportunities for anyone of reasonably good health to contribute.”
Such exceptional endeavors catch the attention of contemporary observers surveying America’s social landscape. But the distinctive character of America’s volunteer effort that de Tocqueville witnessed almost two centuries ago is much more difficult to discern today.
Marvin Olasky, a contributor to the Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity, is the editor in chief of World and the author of The Tragedy of American Compassion.