Aaron Ausland recently noted the surprising inverse relationship between unemployment and volunteering-that as unemployment rises, volunteerism rates go down. He stated that the number of volunteers in America dropped by 600,000 from last year, bringing the national volunteering rate down by a half a percentage point, to 26.3%. While it could seem logical to assume unemployed people have more spare time and would more likely fill that time with volunteering, the opposite appears true.
Overall, we were surprised to see the downward overall trend in volunteering (broadly defined). It makes me ask: which primary demographic is volunteering less? In our work with year long service volunteer programs, millenials seem to be bucking this trend. We're still hearing from service organizations that record numbers of young adults are applying to serve (JVC-Northwest, for example, had a 50% increase in applicants).
Unfortunately, Congress recently took the wind out of these sails, which threatens the quantity and quality of service volunteerism. Congress made drastic cuts to AmeriCorps ($22.5 million in cuts to AmeriCorps Education Awards). Catholic Volunteer Network, which has 1300 AmeriCorps- funded volunteers at 900 sites, is facing a $5 million gap from the cuts. See article on CVN. In spite of debt and budget challenges, prioritizing funding for young adult service volunteerism has critical economic and social implications.
In a report on unemployment I heard on NPR last week, young adults 25 and under have an unemployment rate near 17%. Reihan Salam, a policy advisor at e21 (an economics think-tank) was saying how much this statistic particularly hurts the economy in the long run. Getting a good job early, to build skills and move up into better paying jobs, ultimately builds a stronger economy and leads to more revenue into the tax system. Instead, many young adults are being stalled out of the starting gate, or starting in the "loser's bracket," and our economy will never fully catch up. Cutting AmeriCorps funding kicks this younger generation when it's already down, when it should be offering an essential way to build marketable skills while promoting civic engagement and fostering commitment to the common good-not to mention meeting real needs in our struggling communities.
Under-funding AmeriCorps is one sure way to speed the decline of current volunteering and depress future numbers. Squeezing service volunteer organizations threatens not only the quantity of volunteers, but also the ability of organizations to provide quality service volunteer care (including proper training and debriefing).
At a 50th anniversary event for the Peace Corps, I heard National Director Aaron S. Williams say that, more than ANY other program we have, Peace Corps volunteers (and I would say AmeriCorps volunteers too) represent our highest ideals and values as a nation.
We are in a challenging economic climate that disproportionately affects opportunities for young adults. Whether motivated by economics, idealism, or common sense, shouldn't we be investing in young adult service programs, rather than cutting them?