From the earliest days of U.S. history, Americans have volunteered for various causes to help make the country better and improve life for those who are struggling. This year marks the first federal government report on Civic Life in America, which documents how committed the U.S. population remains to the principles of citizenship in large and small ways through formal organizations and other ways.
The study was compiled by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship and showed a large spike in volunteer activity in the United States during 2009, just as the economic downturn was affecting the country and the world.
LaMonica Shelton is with the Corporation for National and Community Service.
"Americans are getting engaged formally and informally in service. That is really important because we really need to broaden the way we think about people's engagement in solving problems in America. It is about how they engage through organizations formally. But, it is also how people just come together in their neighborhoods to work on issues," she said.
Michael Wieser with the National Conference on Citizenship says the study revealed three main areas of community involvement.
"In tough times, Americans are banding together to solve problems in their own communities. They are running into, and not away from, problems despite the fact that burden for most folks in just making ends meet is greater than it certainly was a few years ago. The second thing we have learned (is) that civic engagement is contagious. The report clearly shows that people who get involved in one kind of civic activity, however informal or social that civic activity is, tend to be involved in more formal volunteering and engagement. The third thing we have learned that the Civic Health Assessment is the very first step in building a movement toward greater participation," he said.
LaMonica Shelton says the study also revealed some indicators as to who is more likely to volunteer their time and talents.
"If a person engages in any one of the multiple civic engagement activities that we focused on for the Civic Life in America report, they are more likely to engage in another civic activity. So, we feel it is kind of this reinforcing cycle, whether it is a person who is involved in volunteering, they are more likely to vote, or (if) it is a person who is socially connected kind of informally interacting with their neighbors, then they are more likely to participate in community groups," she said.
Internet use in the United States is high and continues to grow rapidly. Informally, time online may be seen as disengaging people from real and personal interaction with others. But, in terms of community service and civic participation, Michael Wieser says that perception is not necessarily true.
"The internet is an enabler that gets people closer. But, ultimately, they will engage in person. Ultimately, they will become involved in more personal and intimate ways in solving a community problem and working together in an organization. And so, the internet probably helps people identify those with common interests. It may help break down some of the inhibitions. But, ultimately, it gets them to where they want to be, which is serving together in ways that assist their community," he said.
Many studies on civic participation in the United States have been conducted in the past. LaMonica Shelton explains how this new study is different.
"That looked at the formal ways that people serve through formal organizations. So, it is more formal volunteering. What we have done this year with Civic Life in America is we looked well beyond volunteering. We looked at other aspects of service, like informal service, such as working with your neighbors in your community to fix a problem. But then, we also looked at four other key areas such as political action, participating in a group, connecting to information in current events and social connectedness," she said.
The report also noted the high level of community service by military veterans and the role of corporations, many of which include public interaction as part of their business strategy.
The Civic Life in America report says 63.4 million Americans served through an organization in 2009. About 20 million joined with others in their communities to address specific issues. Almost 6 in 10 Americans did favors for their neighbors.
The report will become an annual survey, and the results are available on an interactive website.