Seventy-two percent of Americans say they have cut back the time they spend volunteering and performing other civic activities in the past year — largely as the result of the recession, according to the study by the National Conference on Citizenship.
The annual America’s Civic Health Index, based on surveys in May of 3,889 people, said that the finding is supported by public perception of how Americans are responding to the bad economy.
Sixty-six percent of those surveyed said that, as a result of the recession, Americans were more concerned with looking out for themselves. Only 19 percent said people were doing more to help others.
The findings amounted to what the report’s authors called “a civic depression.”
“People have pulled back significantly over the past year,” said David B. Smith, executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship, a Congressionally chartered organization that tracks and promotes involvement in civic causes.
The report’s findings seem contrary to those in a study released last month by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which showed that roughly a million more people volunteered in 2008 than in the previous year.
Mr. Smith, whose organization works closely with the corporation, said that the drop-off in volunteerism has taken place since the corporation completed its research last fall.
Historically, recessions have prompted an increase in volunteerism, Mr. Smith said, but only to the point that the unemployment rate reaches a “threshold.”
“When you hit a threshold of 9 or 10 percent, all of a sudden people move from saying, ‘This is the time to rise up and help my community,’ to, ‘Times are really tough and I need to focus on making sure my family has what it needs to get through this hard time,” he said.
Family, Friends, and Neighbors
Like the Corporation for National and Community Service report, however, the study released today found that people were doing more informal, local volunteer activities during the recession.
Fifty percent of survey respondents said they gave food or money to a needy person; 43 percent gave food or money to a relative; and 11 percent allowed a someone who was not a relative to stay in their home or on their property.
“We’re seeing a shift and a focus on more intimate forms of engagement,” Mr. Smith said.
Religion, friends, and social networks seemed to play a significant role in people’s interest in civic engagement, according to the report.
Forty percent of people who described themselves as frequent participants in religious services said they had increased their local involvement in the past year. People who said they were very actively socially were more likely to be involved in civic activities than those who were not.
Online activism seemed to correlate somewhat with local involvement: People between the ages of 15 and 24 who said they used online social networks to promote civic causes were more likely than their peers to get involved in their cities and towns.
The study found that volunteerism was highest among younger people. Forty-three percent of people age 15 to 44 said they volunteered locally in the last year, while 35 percent of people aged 45 to 64 did so and 42 percent of people over 65.
People with fewer financial resources (those earning less than $50,000 a year) were less likely to volunteer than wealthier people (29 percent compared with 51 percent). But people with less income were more likely to give food, money, or shelter (24 percent versus 21 percent).
The study also explored what types of incentives motivate people to volunteer. Twenty-four percent said tax breaks and paid-time off would provide some extra motivation, while 22 percent cited educational vouchers.
Less important were property-tax incentives, training in specific skills, simpler ways to sign up to volunteer, and child care.
In choosing a career, people were far less likely to cite the potential to help society (6 percent) as the most important factor, than they were salary and benefits (41 percent) or job security (28 percent).
Asked what sort of job would allow them to do the most good, survey respondents cited as employers socially-responsible corporations and nonprofit groups (19 percent each), followed by local or small businesses (17 percent), and religious institutions (15 percent).
While the report did not investigate the potential impact of President Obama’s emphasis on community service, Mr. Smith said he hoped that United We Serve, a campaign announced by the president in June, could help “recover most of that civic depression.”
He also said levels of volunteerism would probably recover with the economy. “When the markets turn around, when people have jobs and begin to feel more confidence,” he said, “they’ll start to serve more.”