The collapse and revival of American community

It started as an idea among friends in 2019: what if we build a volunteering app here in Ann Arbor? Among so many things to consider in such an enterprise, one thing was very clear from the start: we didn’t know enough yet about altruism, volunteering, and philanthropy, and we needed to start catching up fast. Fast forward to the present day and BackPac, our volunteering app is live and encompasses a lot more than we anticipated during our ideation days: how did we get here?

To get started, we went through piles of articles, documents, and books that could help us better understand the volunteering space and our collective readiness to help each other in America. In that context, few sources of knowledge would match what Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone offered this avid reader. I believe there is no better way to start our blog posts than to mention some of the remarkable insights that arose from Putnam’s work and continue to inspire us in our path.

Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of the American community back in 2000. Twenty years later, it remains one of the best sources to understand American community affairs ever published. It is a hard book to summarize, given the plethora of information available on it. But in a nutshell, BA tells the story of civic decline in America in recent years.

BA presents a wealth of data and trends related to community life in America over the last century and particularly its decline since the 1960s. By 1959 the ratio of political activists to the general population had increased consistently over the previous 50 years. Americans were voting more and expressing their opinions more. Gallup pollsters discovered that Americans felt increased confidence in their neighbors. The proportion of people that agreed that “most people can be trusted” rose from 66% after WWII to a peak of 77% in 1964.

Although the prospects for community engagement were rosy, BA shows a remarkable downfall of civic engagement in the country after the 1960–70s, and more specifically, to the population behavior towards giving and volunteering. Despite increasing prosperity, the generosity of the average American sank. So what happened?

Donations and Philanthropy

Firstly, let’s discuss what happened to donations. And we can start with some good news: giving time and money is a long and distinguished tradition in American society. Both philanthropy and volunteering are roughly twice as common among Americans as among citizens of other countries. After centuries of a philanthropic behavior that was primarily religious, the twentieth century saw the birth of a more organized and professionalized ecosystem of community organizations. Innovations such as “community chests” (a forerunner of the United Way), community foundations, and a gradual professionalization of fund-raising and volunteer management paved the way for a century of even more engagement.

But if the post-war boom in giving and volunteering was evident, the post-1960s plunge in generosity is even more remarkable. Between 1960 and 1995, the amount donated by Americans to charity nearly doubled (in constant 1993 dollars), from $280 to $522. At first, this might look impressive, but to measure our philanthropic generosity, as Putnam puts it, “we need to know how our giving compares to our income.” And that’s when we start to see some problems. If by 1960 we gave away 1$ for every $2 spent on recreation, in 1997 we gave less than $0.50. In relative terms, our spending on others has lagged well behind our spending in ourselves, donating smaller shares of our income in the 1990s than any other time since the 1940s.

By 1965 Americans donated an average of 2.2% of their incomes to charity, while by the prosperous 1990s, the percentage reached 1.6% of individuals’ income (a 25% drop). If we were giving the same fraction of our income in the year 2000 as previous generations gave in 1960, United Way would have $4 billion more annually, U.S. religious congregations would have $20 billion more annually, and the total philanthropic giving would have reached $50 billion a year.

As Putnam concludes, “after years of high and rising generosity for many good causes, over the last four decades, Americans have become more tight-fisted, precisely when we have also disengaged from the social life of our communities.”

If donations went down, what happened to America’s volunteering behavior?

Over the last century, we saw the sprawl of civic organizations such as the Red Cross, the Scouts, and service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions). The March of Dimes started in the 1930s, World Vision in the 1950s, Habitat for Humanity in the 1970s, and Teach for America in the 1990s.

When it comes to volunteering, the average American volunteered a little over six times a year in the 1970s, but by 1990 that figure rose to nearly eight times a year. Sounds good, right? As Putnam asks, “who are these new volunteers, sailing so boldly against the tide of civic disengagement? The answer is simple: the “great civic generation.”

Born between 1901 and 1929, this is a generation of survivors, encompassing a group of people who survived both world wars and the Great Depression, learning how to be frugal, to “make do” or to do without. They were born in a time with no welfare system, and serving, efficiency, and economizing was a way of life.

According to Putnam, virtually the ENTIRE absolute increase in volunteering in the second half of the century concentrates on people aged sixty and over. Volunteering among seniors has nearly doubled between 1975 and 2000 (from an average of 6 times per year to 12 times a year), showing that, if average volunteering hours went up over the decades, it happened because of this generation’s continuous and increased engagement over time.

Source: Bowling Alone (2000)

The graph above arrays the net trends in volunteering in the last quarter of the previous century by different age brackets. For example, people in their early twenties in 1998 volunteered 39% more than people of that same age in 1975While seniors and millennials have been recently rising to the occasion, the performance of late baby boomers (in their thirties and forties in the 1990s) was way lower after a quarter of a century.

There are many trends to unpack here, and enough material for me to write a future blog post specifically about how different generations approach volunteering. But mostly, Putnam concludes that the increase in volunteering has been positively affected by marked improvements in the health and finances of the elderly over the last decades of the century.

Additionally, volunteering is the syndrome of good citizenship and political involvement, not an alternative to it. Volunteers are more interested in politics and less cynical about political leaders than non-volunteers are. Political alienation rose over the last several decades of the twentieth century, and so did volunteering. But volunteering rose despite the greater alienation, not because of it. In that sense, the prospects for the next decades would not be particularly promising.

Some silver lining for the future

The trends in BA deflate any easy optimism about the future of volunteerism in America. The recent growth has depended upon a generation fated to pass from the scene over the following decades, but there is still hope for optimism. By the end of his work, Putnam mentions that a new spirit of volunteerism began to bubble up from the millennial generation. As shown in the graph above, young Americans in the 1990s displayed a commitment to volunteerism without parallel among their immediate predecessors, which is a very positive trend.

According to Putnam, America might have been in the cusp of a new period of civic renewal, especially if this youthful volunteerism persists into adulthood and begins to expand beyond personal caregiving to broader engagement with social and political issues.

Was Putnam right about Millennials’ prospects back in the year 2000?

That is something I’ll address in an upcoming blog post, discussing specifically the last 20 years of volunteering and philanthropy in America, and particularly the new role of Millennials and the incoming Generation Z in volunteering more recently.

Caio Brandão, co-founder of BackPac


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