Joint Economic Committee

Chairman

Congressman Pat Tiberi (R-OH)

U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Vice Chairman

Social Capital Project U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah

About the Project

Today, Americans face a wide variety of challenges in our era of tumultuous transition. We are materially better off in many ways than in the past. But despite this real progress, there is a sense that our social fabric has seen better days. Leading thinkers have issued warnings that we are increasingly “bowling alone,” “coming apart,” and inhabiting a “fractured republic.” At the heart of those warnings is a view that what happens in the middle layers of our society is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country. That space is held together by extended networks of cooperation and social support, norms of reciprocity and mutual obligation, trust, and social cohesion. In short, it is sustained by what we do together.

The Social Capital Project is a multi-year research effort that will investigate the evolving nature, quality, and importance of our associational life. “Associational life” is our shorthand for the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations. These institutions are critical to forming our character and capacities, providing us with meaning and purpose, and for addressing the many challenges we face.

The goal of the project is to better understand why the health of our associational life feels so compromised, what consequences have followed from changes in the middle social layers of our society, why some communities have more robust civil society than others, and what can be done—or can stop being done—to improve the health of our social capital. Through a series of reports and hearings, it will study the state of the relationships that weave together the social fabric enabling our country—our laws, our institutions, our markets, and our democracy—to function so well in the first place.

Analysis

Few countries are as generous as the United States when it comes to volunteering.1 One quarter of Americans donated time to an organization in 2015. One need look no further than the outpouring of assistance in response to recent natural disasters for powerful illustrations of American civic-mindedness. In 2006 and 2007, over a million volunteers joined the recovery effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. One year after Superstorm Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that, “some 173,544 volunteers had invested more than 1 million volunteer hours in the Sandy recovery effort.”2 And already, Americans have responded to the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma with characteristic generosity.

One of the findings in the Social Capital Project’s first report, “What We Do Together,” was that volunteering rates in the US are no lower than in the 1970s, in contrast to many indicators of social capital that have worsened over time. In fact, we found that the number of hours spent volunteering per person has increased.3

This post goes further, arguing that volunteering rates may have actually risen over the long run. The post also explores the demographics of volunteerism. Volunteerism is more common among women and among socioeconomically advantaged groups. The volunteering rates of Americans of different ages have converged over time. Over the long run, volunteerism may have declined among adults ages 25 to 44, but it increased among other age groups, in particular the elderly. Volunteerism may have declined since 2002, though different data sources come to different conclusions. Any recent decline has been concentrated among non-Hispanic whites, who continue to have relatively high volunteer rates. Volunteering is more common in the North than in the South, with Utah leading the way overall.

Figure 1. Volunteer Rates, 1974-2015