Volunteering Hits Lowest Rate in More Than 10 Years

Americans are volunteering less than they have in over a decade, but why is unclear.

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Volunteering in the U.S. hit a new low last year, according to the Labor Department. As of September 2013, 25.4 percent of all Americans 16 and older had volunteered with an organization at least once in the prior year, according to a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the lowest rate of volunteering the annual report has found since it was first conducted in 2002, and the latest year-over-year change is statistically significant, according to a BLS economist.

The BLS could not comment on the reasons behind the falling volunteer rate, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, a government agency that also sponsored the report, also declined to comment on those reasons.

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While it might make intuitive sense that an improving job market would bring the rate down – spending more time at the office might logically mean less time for the animal shelter or soup kitchen – that doesn’t appear to be true. The volunteer rate hit its peak in the early 2000s, when the jobless rate was lower than it is now. In addition, as the Washington Examiner points out, employed Americans tend to volunteer at higher rates than the unemployed or people not in the labor force. Part-time employed Americans volunteer at even higher rates, with 31.7 percent volunteering last year, compared to 26.8 for full-time workers, 24.1 for the unemployed, and 21.9 percent for people outside the labor force.

People outside the labor force may have lower rates of volunteering than their employed counterparts, but those who did volunteer last year did it much more – 65 hours annually to be exact. Meanwhile, full-time-employed Americans volunteered for a median of only 44 hours. (The median for all volunteers was 50 hours.)

Among groups that saw large declines in volunteering were those with bachelor’s degrees or higher. The share of these people who volunteered in 2013 was at 39.8 percent, down from 42.2 percent in 2012, a decline of nearly 1 million people. 

The 55-to-64-year-old segment saw the biggest percentage-point decline among age groups, from 27.6 to 26 percent. And among the four racial and ethnic groups studied, people who identify as black or African-American had the largest decline, from 21.1 percent to 18.5 percent, though whites and Asians also saw a decline. Hispanics and Latinos were the only group to see higher volunteer rates, from 15.2 to 15.5 percent.