Volunteering in America Is On the Decline

Daniel Zender

The United States has a long history of volunteering. Enshrined in the United States Constitution, the right to form voluntary associations has been a treasured aspect of American life since the nation's birth. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the propensity for Americans to join civic organizations when he traveled the country before the Civil War. By 1944, Arthur Schlesinger would famously refer to America as a "nation of joiners." But in recent years, the percentage of Americans volunteering has dwindled and is now at its lowest level in a decade.

Last year the volunteer rate was 25.4 percent, or 62.6 million people, compared with 29 percent of the population in 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Official statistics on volunteer rates go back only to 2002.) The BLS counts volunteering as any unpaid volunteer work done in the past 12 months, from driving a neighbor to the hospital to serving meals to the homeless or tutoring inner-city kids. The most common volunteering activity in the nation is fund-raising, followed by food distribution and then general labor.

The total hours volunteered varies widely in different parts of the country. Utah tops the charts both for the number of volunteers relative to its population and the hours spent volunteering—more than 78 hours annually on average for all Utahans. It's likely that the Mormon Church's strong emphasis on volunteer work has a lot to do with Utah's volunteer rates.

At the other end of the spectrum is Arkansas, where citizens on average volunteer only a third as much time as Utah residents. The reasons for regional discrepancies can't be boiled down to a single explanation, but in general volunteering is more prevalent in the Midwest than in other regions. One factor that seems to influence volunteer rates is financial stress. Single-parent households and families where both parents work full time or hold multiple jobs have little extra time for volunteering.

The overall impact of volunteering is significant. By one estimate, all those volunteer hours add up to around $175 billion worth of services, an important benefit to society as a whole for which no one has to pay. With volunteering on the decline, perhaps it's time to pay attention to an area of the economy we usually take for granted.