, via Wikimedia Commons”]We’ve all heard that volunteering is good for your community, but is it good for economy too?Volunteering at your local homeless shelter may not promote job growth, but it just might prevent job loss.
The National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) recently released a study looking at statewide levels of civic engagement and unemployment growth between 2006 and 2010.
Civic engagement refers to all the ways Americans engage in civic life, including volunteering, voting, attending meetings, working with neighbours and writing letters to the government, just to name a few.
It turns out states with the highest levels of civic engagement experienced the lowest growth in unemployment levels during that four year period, even after the recession hit.
This was true even after adjusting for other economic factors that tend to predict unemployment rates, such as local industry growth and the number of adults with a high school diploma.
Civic engagement and lower unemployment
The NCOC determined each state’s average level of civil engagement, or “civic health”, using information from the Census Current Population Supplement. In some cases, the correlation between community involvement and a state’s unemployment growth is pretty significant.
In Nevada, less than 5% of people reported helping their neighbours in 2006, and their unemployment rate increased by 10 percentage points between 2006 and 2010. By contrast, 8% of people in North Dakota reported working with neighbours in 2006, and their unemployment rate only increased by one percentage point.
The NCOC study also broke civic engagement into five major categories, and looked at how each category contributed to a decrease in the unemployment growth percentage.
The categories were volunteering, attending public meetings, working with neighbours to address community problems, registering to vote, and voting. Working with neighbours had the highest impact, with a decrease of 0.256 percentage points, but volunteering also had a noticeable impact at 0.192 percentage points.
Data shows correlation, but causation is up for debate
Of course, this study only shows us that areas with lower unemployment tend to have higher numbers of volunteers. Like with bad credit and debt, correlation and causation are hard to separate. There are plenty of other logical reasons for volunteering and lower job loss to move in tandem, which the NCOC is quick to point out. Each state’s individual economic policies, which were not taken into account in this study, are likely to impact job growth.
Alternatively, people who already have jobs may be more likely to volunteer. All that aside, the study’s lack of long term data might be more problematic than anything else. The Census Bureau did not try to keep track of civic engagement until very recently, so there’s not much data on the subject in general.
Evidence for causation from other sources
There may be no evidence of causation within the survey itself, but other statistics may support the theory that volunteering is good for job security, at least in small ways. Job opportunities are most frequently found through social connections: friends, family, fellow professionals, and increasingly, online social networks. The U.S. Bureau of labour Statistics estimates that 70% of people find jobs through networking. When people participate in their communities, they meet more people, and can learn about opportunities more quickly.
Additionally, governments with involved citizens are more likely to reflect the needs of the local business community. According to the National League of Cities 2009 Economic Development Survey, local government policies had the greatest impact on small business growth – defined as the growth of new business establishments with less than 99 employees – between 2008 and 2009. And, while it’s not a widespread trend, a number of cities promote job growth by passing local hiring legislation.
More analysis needed, but volunteering is good anyway
In their conclusion, the NCOC states that civic engagement’s relationship to unemployment needs to be researched more thoroughly, and perhaps given more consideration as a strategy for economic resilience. To predict job growth, most people look at hard facts like the amount of business credit card lending, which presages private-sector development, and community income levels because these things are easier to quantify. Social engagement, by contrast, is much harder to measure, but perhaps just as useful for bringing about real change.
But here’s what it really comes down to. Whether it directly impacts the economy or not, volunteering is still an awesome thing to do. There are non-profits all over the country that desperately need your help, especially in a recession. Government funding is scarce and many individuals have cut back on donations. If you volunteer with a group, you’ll have opportunities to network with other passionate people, and maybe even promote your business if you have one.
If you’re unemployed, look for ways to volunteer and work on your job skills at the same time. Find a non-profit that needs help with web design, office assistance, fundraising, community outreach, or whatever else you’re good at. Even just a couple hours once a month can help improve your community and your career. For inspiration, or to find local opportunities, visit Serve.gov.
Tim Chen is the CEO of NerdWallet, a site offering advice on the best credit cards for consumers of all sorts. He encourages you to do something good for your community this fall season.