When he visited the United States in the 1830’s, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville saw the knack Americans had for forming civic associations for every conceivable purpose as a key to “democracy in America.” A century later, an historian praised Americans as “a nation of joiners” because they were still participating in one or another kind of group.
But since the 1990’s, we have worried that our tradition of joining was waning. Americans were increasingly “bowling alone,” a Harvard professor claimed, less inclined to work, socialize, or cooperate with their neighbors. At the time, many disputed his findings.
However, his argument got a boost last month from the Federal government’s annual survey of volunteering. It found that just one in four American adults gave some of their time to a civic organization in 2013, the lowest percentage since the survey began in 2002. The rate for young adults, between 16 and 34, fell below 22 percent, lower than for all other age-groups, including the elderly. Less than 20 percent of minority-group members volunteered.
Of course, some people may not consider what they do, such as helping out at school or in church, as volunteering. And there are many other ways to become involved in one’s community besides joining an organization. By international standards, Americans remain more likely to volunteer than the people of most other countries.
Even so, the fact that the United States is much less a nation of joiners than it had been is not a good sign. If we are unhappy with what our communities are like, or what our government does, we will only have ourselves to blame.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. “On the Use Which the Americans Make of Associations in
Civil Life,” Democracy in America (1839).
Schlesinger, Arthur M. “Biography of a Nation of Joiners,” American Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1944), pp. 1-25.
Putnam, Robert D. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1995), pp. 65-78.
“Volunteering in the United States” (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
“World Giving Index” (Charities Aid Foundation)