The number of Americans who volunteer grew last year at the fastest rate in six years, according to a new report, defying the popular notion that hard economic times suppress civic participation.
The report, released today by the Corporation for National and Community Service, says that 63.4 million adult Americans—nearly 27 percent of the population—volunteered to help charitable causes last year. That’s an increase from 2008 of roughly 1.6 million volunteers, the largest single-year jump since 2003.
In total, 2009’s volunteers donated about 8.1 billion hours of service, valued at nearly $169-billion, says the report, which is based on annual and monthly surveys of roughly 100,000 Americans age 16 or older, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last year’s figures defied expectations, according to the report, which pointed to the common assumption that when the economy goes sour, people turn inward to focus on their own circumstances. “The data, however, tell a different story,” the report says.
An increase in volunteer rates among women ages 45 to 54 and among married women helped fuel the rise in volunteer numbers. Among black women, volunteer rates rose nearly two percentage points, to 22.8 percent.
The organizations at which Americans chose to volunteer stayed fairly consistent between 2008 and 2009. As before, the largest percentage of Americans—more than one-third—volunteered at churches or with other religious groups. But the economic downturn may have stirred more people to donate their time to social-service organizations, which counted 8.8 million volunteers last year, up from 8.4 million in 2008.
The Corporation for National and Community Service’s report also drew some links between the economy and the varying rates of volunteering across the country. Among large metropolitan areas, for example, four of the five cities with the highest foreclosure rates last year—Las Vegas; Riverside, Cal.; Miami; and Orlando, Fla.—ranked in the bottom ten in volunteer rates among large cities. And, the report found, states with higher rates of unemployment—such as Michigan and Nevada—had lower rates of volunteering.
But even as the hardships of unemployment spread throughout the country, a slightly bigger share of jobless people donated their time last year than in 2008—22.9 percent, up from 22.3 percent, representing 1.3 million additional volunteers. What’s more, jobless men showed a larger increase in their volunteer rate (17 percent to 18.2 percent ) than men who were employed (25.4 percent to 25.8 percent).
Altogether, the most common volunteer activity was fund raising, with nearly 27 percent donating their time to raise money for charitable causes. Almost 24 percent of Americans collected and distributed food.
The report also found that a growing number of Americans -- 20.7 million, up from 19.9 million in 2008 -- are volunteering in less-formal ways, such as by helping neighbors solve a problem.
Patrick Corvington, the Corporation for National and Community Service's chief executive, estimates that likely even more people than the survey counted are engaged in efforts outside of the formal charity network.
He says more people are responding to President Obama's call to service, and a large number of jobless people may be volunteering to gain work experience. The tough economy has also inspired some people to be more sympathetic with the plight of others.
As Americans, Mr. Corvington says, "we tilt toward problems, rather than away from them."