Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
One of the principal sources of community is voluntary groups and associations such as clubs, neighborhood committees, youth groups, charities, and churches. Civic engagement — individuals’ participation in these types of intermediary organizations and other forms of voluntary community effort — has been linked to better health, safer communities, child development, a stronger economy, and greater quality of life and happiness.1
How civically engaged are Americans? Has their degree of engagement shifted over time?
AMERICANS ARE ENGAGED
Americans participate in a wide range of civic activities. Here is Robert Putnam’s effusive description2:
“The ingenuity of Americans in creating organizations knows no bounds. Wandering through the World Almanac list of 2,380 groups with some national visibility from the Aaron Burr Society to the Zionist Organization of America, one discovers such intriguing bodies as the Grand United Order of Antelopes, the Elvis Presley Burning Love Fan Club, the Polish Army Veterans Association of America, the Southern Appalachian Dulcimer Association, and the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History. Some of these groups may be the organizational equivalent of vanity press publications, but surveys of American communities over the decades have uncovered an impressive organizational vitality at the grassroots level. Many Americans today are actively involved in educational or school service groups like PTAs, recreational groups, work-related groups, such as labor unions and professional organizations, religious groups (in addition to churches), youth groups, service and fraternal clubs, neighborhood or homeowners groups, and other charitable organizations.”
Some forms of civic engagement, such as being a member of an organization, can entail minimal commitment. Others, such as regular volunteering or active participation in a group, involve greater time or effort. We have limited information about the time and effort Americans devote to civic engagement (see below).
We know more about the share of people who participate. Figure 1 begins by showing the share of Americans who say they are an active member of a civic group, volunteer their time to an organization, or donate money to a charity.
Figure 2 details some of the main types of groups and organizations in which Americans participate. It shows the share who say they are active in any of 27 different types, from religious to sports to youth groups to fan clubs and much more. (Here and below, I leave out political groups and activities. I examine them in “Democracy.”)
When we compare across the world’s rich longstanding-democratic countries, the United States is toward the high end in civic engagement, according to the available data. Figure 3 shows the share in each nation who report that they are an “active member” of various types of groups and organizations, and figure 4 shows the share who say they participate at least once a month in the activities of a group. Figure 5 shows the share who say that in the past month they have donated money to a charity, volunteered time to an organization, or helped a stranger. In all three charts, the US is at or near the top.
What accounts for the cross-country differences in civic engagement? One of the best predictors across individuals is educational attainment.3 But as figure 6 shows, when we look across countries, education is only weakly correlated with active participation in civic groups and organizations.
Religiosity is another good predictor for individuals. Figure 7 shows active group membership by the share of the population who says religion “is very important in my life.” Here the association is stronger, though still modest.
A prominent hypothesis among critics of government is that generous social programs reduce the incentive for citizens to form and join intermediary organizations that aim to ameliorate social problems.4 Perhaps Americans are prolific participators because the United States has fewer public insurance programs than most other affluent countries, and those it has tend to be less generous.5 We also have lower overall government expenditures, relative to the size of our economy. But comparing across the rich countries, there is no noteworthy association between government size and civic engagement.6
Social scientists don’t, at the moment, have a good explanation for the cross-national variation in civic engagement. Whatever the key determinants are, in the US they appear to have originated early in the country’s history. In his study of American life nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that7
“Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute…. Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”
CIVIC ENGAGEMENT HAS DECREASED
The number of civic groups and organizations in the United States has increased steadily over time.8 So too, in all likelihood, has the share of the population that is a member in some voluntary association.
Yet in many cases such membership involves little or no civic engagement per se, and other indicators suggest that such engagement has been declining. Robert Putnam compiled data on membership rates in 32 national chapter-based associations that existed throughout much of the twentieth century. Figure 8 shows that membership in these groups peaked around 1960 and then fell steadily for four decades.
Participation in religious organizations has long been one of the most common forms of civic engagement for Americans. Figure 9 shows that attendance at religious services and membership in church-affiliated organizations have fallen since the early 1970s. Data on monetary donations are available only since 2003, but they too suggest a decline, while the share of Americans who say they volunteer with a religious group or organization was flat during those years.
Labor unions are the main type of work-related voluntary association in which people participate. As figure 10 shows, the rate of union membership has fallen steadily since the mid-1950s. On the other hand, membership in professional societies has increased a bit since the mid-1970s.
Figure 11 shows the share of Americans who say they are a member of a variety of other (nonreligious, nonwork) types of organizations or groups. This share also has decreased a bit, though mainly just between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s. Unfortunately, 2004 is the most recent year the General Social Survey asked this question, so we don’t know what further change, if any, has occurred since then.
We have few indicators of the quantity of time or effort Americans put into civic participation. Figure 12 shows one — the number of club or group meetings attended, on average, over the past year. The number fell sharply between the mid-1970s and the turn of the century.
Time diaries are another helpful source of information. Figure 13 shows two measures of the average amount of time Americans reported spending on associational activity each month. Both suggest a substantial decline between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s.
A more involved form of participation is serving as an officer for an organization or on its committee. Figure 14 shows the share who say they did so for a local club or group in the past year. The share dropped sharply during the two decades for which these data are available, from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s.
Perhaps the lowest-effort form of civic engagement is donating money. Yet money can matter a great deal for the sustainability and success of groups and associations. Figure 15 shows a measure of financial giving as a share of national income, with data beginning in the late 1920s. Like the trend for membership in national chapter organizations, we see an increase until around 1960 followed by a steady and sharp decline.
Volunteering seems to be a notable exception to the downward trend in civic engagement.9 Figure 16 shows two measures of the share of Americans who perform any volunteer activity, one covering the 1980s and the other the 2000s. Both suggest an increase. A measure of the share who volunteered 100 hours or more in the previous year shows no change. Figure 17 shows that the number of times Americans say they volunteered in the past year rose steadily in the 1980s and the 1990s. In 2000, Robert Putnam noted the apparent rise in voluntarism up to that point but cautioned that it was confined largely to elderly Americans. He thus worried that the trend would be short-lived.10 The data for the 2000s in figure 17 suggest that his worry may have been wrong, or at least premature.
Another exception is support and self-help groups — groups to support addicts, people striving to lose weight, divorcees, co-dependents, victims’ family members, and much more. The number of such organizations and the number of participants have increased in recent decades.11
What about social movements? Lots of social movements peaked, in membership and participation, in the 1960s. But not all. A number of noteworthy, and in some cases sizable, movements have arisen in the subsequent decades — for protection of the environment in the 1970s, against the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the 1970s, against separation of religion and politics in the 1970s, in favor of divestment from firms doing business in South Africa in the 1980s, against US foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, in favor of equal treatment and rights for LGBTQs in the 1980s, against gun regulations in the 1990s, against sweatshops in the 2000s, in favor of a $15 an hour minimum wage in recent years, and more. But while we lack hard numbers, participation in social movements is likely to have been flat at best, rather than rising.12
Perhaps the most important counter to the fall in civic engagement stems from the internet and social media, which has facilitated an array of new forms of participation and activism — blogging, online petitions, internet forums, twitter communities, social media fundraisers, and more. By making it easier to locate potential members, to share information, and to raise money, the internet may also facilitate the creation and sustainability of more traditional organizations.13
So has civic engagement decreased in the United States? The most thorough assessment to date is by Robert Putnam in his 2000 book Bowling Alone. Putnam concludes that with a few notable exceptions — volunteering, self-help and support groups, and internet-based activism — “Americans have been dropping out in droves … from organized community life.”14
Theda Skocpol offers a different interpretation. She looks farther back in time and identifies six clusters of high associational activity in the United States: the 1820s to 1850s, the 1850s to 1890s, the middle-to-late 1910s, the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1960s to 1970s. According to Skocpol, many of the clusters appear to center around events of “nationalizing impact,” such as the Civil War, the two World Wars, and the Cold War, and during periods when mobilization of voters was high. It’s conceivable, then, that what appears to be a collapse of civic engagement since 1960 actually is just another valley between participatory peaks.15
WHY THE DECLINE?
What’s caused the decrease in civic engagement among Americans? There are a number of potential culprits.
One in four Americans doesn’t participate in any groups or organizations, and by far the most common reason they give, cited by 43%, is lack of time. After this, lack of interest is cited by 25%, health problems by 17%, lack of internet access by 10%, and inability to locate groups with people who have compatible interests or beliefs by 9%.16 This suggests we should look first to time competitors.
One such competitor is paid work. At the peak of civic engagement in the United States, the 1960s, women were more likely to engage in civic activity than men, and they devoted more time to it. Over the past half century women have moved into paid employment in steadily growing numbers.17 Although this has partly been offset by a reduction in the amount of time women spend on housework, their increased time in paid work has left half of the working-aged population with less time to devote to civic groups and organizations. Robert Andersen and colleagues find that by the 1990s, women’s time spent participating in civic associations had fallen to about the same level as men’s, accounting for much of America’s overall decline.18
On the other hand, civic participation is greater among people who have more hours of paid work. And it has declined not only among women but also among men, and not only among employed women but also among those not in paid work.19
Another competitor for people’s time is driving. As Americans moved from cities and small towns to suburban areas in the second half of the twentieth century, they spent more time in cars driving to work and to leisure activities (shopping, children’s extracurricular activities, etc.). Prior to mobile internet access, this surely contributed to a decline in participation in groups and organizations.20
Television also seems likely to have contributed. According to the Nielsen Company, American households on average watched 5 hours of TV per day in 1960, 7 in 1985, and 8.4 in 2010.21 Robert Putnam concluded that TV watching has played a significant role in civic engagement’s decline. In his words: “Considered in combination with a score of other factors that predict social participation (including education, generation, gender, region, size of hometown, work obligations, marriage, children, income, financial worries, religiosity, race, geographic mobility, commuting time, homeownership, and more), dependence on television for entertainment is not merely a significant predictor of civic dIsengagement. It is the single most consistent predictor that I have discovered.”22
Since the mid-1990s, email, the internet, and social media have joined the list of time competitors. In 1995, 14% of Americans used the internet. That jumped to 66% in 2005 and 87% in 2014.23 Increasingly, we connect to the internet via mobile devices. In 2011, just 35% of Americans owned a smartphone. By 2014, that was up to 58%.24
As noted earlier, the internet, email, and social media can also serve as complements to civic engagement, rather than substitutes. They can reduce the cost of participation for already-engaged citizens and provide new ways for bringing in individuals who aren’t yet engaged.25 Even games can help: civic-oriented games played in the company of others, and games that connect individuals to other players through the internet, have been found to promote civic-mindedness and community involvement.26 A 2009 meta-analysis of 38 studies found little evidence of a negative effect of internet use on civic engagement.27
A large portion (half or more) of the decline in civic engagement in the United States owes to differences between cohorts. That is, the reduction has come from younger generations always being less engaged than older generations, rather than from individuals changing their behavior to become less participatory. These cohort differences owe in part to cultural shifts, four of which seem likely to have been of particular importance: the impact of wars, the rise of materialism, the rise of individualism, and a growing sense of powerlessness.
The sharpest difference is between the World War II generation, which came of age during or shortly after the war, and the baby boom generation, which came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. World War II seems to have promoted civic engagement. In Robert Putnam’s words, “World War II, like earlier major wars in U.S. history, brought shared adversity and a shared enemy. The war ushered in a period of intense patriotism nationally and civic activism locally.”28 Americans who came of age during these years seem to have felt a heightened sense of civic obligation that lasted throughout their lives.
The baby boom generation had a different set of formative experiences. First, the wars of their youth — Korea and particularly Vietnam — were divisive rather than unifying.
Second, the World War II generation grew up during lean economic times: the widespread joblessness and misery of the 1930s and the austerity of the early 1940s war years. Baby boomers were raised in a very different economic environment, one of perceived material abundance, driven by a robust economy and a media and advertising industry that celebrated affluence and consumerism. Among Americans born after 1949, about 37% said money was “very important” to them, compared to just 21% of those born before 1934.29 In when asked to identify elements of “the good life,” the share of Americans that chose “happy marriage,” “children,” and “a job that contributes to society” held constant between the mid-1970s and the turn of the century, while the share choosing “a lot of money” or “material luxuries” jumped by 25 percentage points.30
A third important cultural shift was toward individualism — enhanced emphasis on individual rights, freedoms, opportunities, and well-being. This too is to some degree a product of affluence. As a society moves beyond basic economic survival and security, economic needs and concerns become less dominant in our thinking.31 Individualism’s spread also has been abetted by the media, including television.
Fourth, younger generations may be less likely to feel their participation in civic groups and organizations can succeed in achieving their aims. These cohorts, which came of age after the successes of the 1930s popular movements and the 1950s and early 1960s civil rights movement, may feel relatively powerless due to the perceived failure of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and the withering of assorted other social movements during the 1970s and 1980s. As Theda Skocpol puts it, “Maybe the problem today is that many Americans, quite rightly, no longer feel that they can effectively band together to get things done either through or in relationship to government.”32 This applies with particular strength to post-baby boom generations, according to Michael Delli Carpini33:
“In short, while older Americans have the ability to put the current anti-politics environment in perspective, drawing on experiences of effective public-sector policy, of respected public-sector leaders, and of meaningful collective action, for Americans under the age of 30, the current environment is all they know. Never having experienced a period in which their own participation has effected meaningful change on an issue that mattered to them, and raised in an environment that regularly tells them such action is unlikely to succeed, it is hardly surprising that they are disinclined to participate in public life. Young Americans are not disengaged because they are satisfied with the current state of affairs, because they are apathetic, or because they do not care about their fellow citizens. Rather, they are disengaged because they are alienated from the institutions and processes of civic life and lack the motivation, opportunity, and ability to overcome this alienation.”
This might help explain the turn away from civic engagement in the form of direct participation in community groups and toward passive involvement in professionalized mass national organizations.34
Two of the most important sources of civic engagement in the US have been religion and work. Each has seen declines partly owing to narrow causes.
Participation in religious organizations has long been, and still is, the most common form of civic engagement in the United States. While Americans remain more religious than their counterparts in other rich longstanding-democratic countries, over the past half century we have been following, slowly, their secularizing process.35 This has contributed to the fall in engagement with religious groups and organizations. Now, it could conceivably be that the decline in participation in religious organizations actually is just a specific instance of the general decline in civic engagement. But we know secularization has mattered because we see the decline in religiosity in the United States along many other dimensions, including relatively personal ones such as frequency of prayer.36
Historically, the chief form of work-based civic engagement has been labor unions. At their peak in the mid-1950s, more than 30% of employed Americans were union members. That share has fallen steadily for more than half a century, to just 10% today. The shift from manufacturing jobs to service positions has been a key driver, along with our labor relations regulatory framework, which gives employers advantages in getting rid of existing unions and preventing formation of new ones.37
As economic security has decreased and income growth has slowed, Americans have reported feeling greater financial pressure, which is associated with lower rates of civic engagement. Rising income inequality, too, could lead to reduced participation, as those on the lower end of the ladder feel diminished in stature, live in different areas, and share fewer common goals with those who are better off.38 However, traditional forms of civic engagement have decreased among those with both lower and higher income. And the fall in civic participation began in the 1960s, prior to the increases in financial pressures and in income inequality.39
Another hypothesis, mentioned earlier, is that expansive government discourages intermediary organizations by reducing the need for them. There surely is something to this. Yet the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the heyday of rising civic participation, was also an era when government size and generosity were increasing. And the decline of civic engagement occurred during a period — beginning in the 1960s and continuing at least through the late 1990s — when government expanded very slowly. And across the rich nations there is no association between government size and active membership in civic groups. Big government is unlikely to have been a major player in the decline of civic engagement.40
Civil society has long been a core institution in the United States. Americans have been active in forming, joining, and participating in a wide range of civic groups, organizations, and activities.
According to the best available data, civic engagement increased significantly in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. In the 1960s that trend reversed course, and civic participation declined at least through the end of the century. One key cause appears to be the rise of various competitors for people’s time, including women’s movement into paid work, suburban sprawl, television, the internet, and social media. Another contributor is cultural shifts, from the impact of the Korean and Vietnam wars to materialism and individualism to growing perceptions of collective powerlessness.
Despite this decline, Americans remain at or near the top in civic engagement among the world’s affluent democratic nations. And there are exceptions to the decline, such as volunteering, self-help groups, and possibly social movements. Perhaps most noteworthy are internet-based forms of engagement, which could potentially usher in a new era of civic revitalization.
- James S. Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” American Journal of Sociology, 1988; Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000; Jane Allyn Piliavin and Erica Siegl, “Health Benefits of Volunteering in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 2007; Stijn Ruiter, “Association in Context and Association as Context: Causes and Consequences of Voluntary Association Involvement,” 2008; Erik van Ingen and Tom van der Meer, “Welfare State Expenditure and Inequalities in Voluntary Association Participation,” Journal of European Social Policy, 2011. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, pp. 48-49. ↩
- In addition to those with more education, the religious (especially Protestants), the employed, older persons, and women are disproportionately likely to be members of voluntary associations. See Putnam, Bowling Alone; Dietram A. Scheufele and Dhavan V. Shah, “Personality Strength and Social Capital: The Role of Dispositional and Informational Variables in the Production of Civic Participation,” Communication Research, 2000; Evan Schofer and Marion Fourcade-Gourinchas, “The Structural Contexts of Civic Engagement: Voluntary Association Membership in Comparative Perspective,” American Sociological Review, 2001; Robert Andersen, James Curtis, and Edward Grabb, “Trends in Civic Association Activity in Four Democracies: The Special Case of Women in the United States,” American Sociological Review, 2006; Stijn Ruiter and Nan Dirk De Graaf, “National Context, Religiosity, and Volunteering: Results from 53 Countries,” American Sociological Review, 2006. ↩
- Yuval Levin, “The Real Debate,” The Weekly Standard, 2012. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Social Programs,” The Good Society. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Is Big Government Bad for Freedom, Civil Society, and Happiness?,” The Good Society. ↩
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, cited in Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 48. ↩
- National Center for Charitable Statistics. ↩
- John Wilson, “Volunteering,” Annual Review of Sociology, 2000. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 7. ↩
- Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community, Free Press, 1994; Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 9. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 9. ↩
- Michael X. Delli Carpini, “Gen.com: Youth, Civic Engagement, and the New Information Environment,” Political Communication, 2000; Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 9; Susannah Fox and Lee Rainie, “The Web at 25 in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, 2014. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, pp. 64, 180. One study concludes that in much of Europe, a more accurate conclusion is that civic engagement has shifted from membership and activist organizations toward leisure and recreation organizations. Tom E. G. Van der Meer, Manfred te Grotenhuis, and Peer L. H. Scheepers, “Three Types of Voluntary Associations in Comparative Perspective: The Importance of Studying Associational Involvement through a Typology of Associations in 21 European Countries,” Journal of Civil Society, 2009. ↩
- Theda Skocpol, “The Tocqueville Problem: Civic Engagement in American Democracy,” Social Science History, 1997. ↩
- Lee Rainie, Kristen Purcell, and Aaron Smith, “The Social Side of the Internet,” Pew Research Center, 2011, p. 14. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Gender Equality,” The Good Society. ↩
- Andersen et al, “Trends in Civic Association Activity in Four Democracies,” p. 394. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 11; Eric M. Uslaner, “Social Capital, Television, and the ‘Mean World’: Trust, Optimism, and Civic Participation,” Political Psychology, 1998. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 12. ↩
- The Nielsen Company, “Historical Daily Viewing Activity among Households.” ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, pp. 230-31. The cross-country pattern provides a potential caution. The ISSP has data on the share of adults in various countries who report that they watch television daily. Australia has a higher incidence of daily TV viewership, and yet it has seen associational growth in almost all types of surveyed organizations, in stark contrast to the US. Japan too has more daily television watchers, but it has experienced less civic disengagement than the US. ↩
- Fox and Rainie, “The Web at 25 in the U.S.” ↩
- Fox and Rainie, “The Web at 25 in the U.S.” ↩
- Delli Carpini, “Gen.com: Youth, Civic Engagement, and the New Information Environment”; Fox and Rainie, “The Web at 25 in the U.S.” ↩
- Amanda Lenhart, Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, Alexandra MacGill, Chris Evans, and Jessica Vitak, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics,” Pew Research Center, 2008. ↩
- Shelly Boulianne, “Does Internet Use Affect Engagement? A Meta-Analysis of Research,” Political Communication, 2009. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 268. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, figure 75, using Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll data. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, figure 76, using Roper Organization data. ↩
- Ronald Inglehart, “Changing Values among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006,” West European Politics, 2008. ↩
- Theda Skocpol, “The Tocqueville Problem: Civic Engagement in American Democracy,” Social Science History, 1997, p. 472. ↩
- Delli Carpini, “Gen.com: Youth, Civic Engagement, and the New Information Environment,” p. 345. ↩
- Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina, Civic Engagement in American Democracy, 1999; Putnam, Bowling Alone. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Religion,” The Good Society. ↩
- Kenworthy, “Religion.” ↩
- Joel Rogers, “Divide and Conquer,” Wisconsin Law Review, 1990; Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, “Workers of the World Divide: The Decline of Labor and the Future of the Middle Class,” Foreign Affairs, 2013. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 11; Erik Van Ingen and Tom van der Meer, “Welfare State Expenditure and Inequalities in Voluntary Association Participation,” Journal of European Social Policy, 2001; Bram Lancee and Herman G. Van de Werfhorst, “Income Inequality and Participation: A Comparison of 24 European Countries,” Social Science Research, 2012. ↩
- Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 11; Lane Kenworthy and Timothy Smeeding, “Growing Inequalities and Their Impacts in the United States,” GINI Project, 2013. ↩
- Kenworthy, “Is Big Government Bad for Freedom, Civil Society, and Happiness?” ↩