Participation and Local Political Culture: Analysis of Recent Nationwide Trends in Volunteering

Link to Full Working Paper

Volunteer behavior and participation can be a proxy for social capital accumulation. Using the Census’ Current Population Survey, we test two basic questions:

1. Has social capital accumulation in the form of participating in volunteer organizations increased or decreased over time? What factors influence participation?

2. How does local political culture influence participation and volunteer behavior?

We find strong evidence of an Elazar-style breakdown of US political culture in the form of volunteer work. We hypothesize that building social capital through volunteering is more strongly favored and prestigious in moralistic cultures. We find that the moralistic, agricultural Midwest resembles the traditionalistic South in traditional volunteer activities such as religion because these regions draw their morality from traditional sources such as the Bible. However, in moralistic regions such as New England, the Pacific Northwest, and to a lesser extent the Mountainous Midwest, volunteering New Political Culture issue-specific volunteering is more common than the country as a whole. These regions maintain the strong Puritan tradition of helping others and prestige in volunteering generally, but have moved on from valuing traditional morality like religion to new issues like the environment. We still find that individualistic cultures tend not to volunteer as much, but that Alaska may be actually moralistic in nature and California more individualistic, as opposed to Elazar’s original classifications.

We find some evidence that Putnam’s diagnosis of declining civic participation may be partially correct. For every type of organization except environmental, we find that volunteering as increased over the last decade. This is true of most volunteer activities as well. However, the exception of “working with people in your neighborhood to solve a problem” is non-trivial. Participation has increased, all else equal, since the question was originally asked in 2006. “Working with people in your neighborhood” was the question best designed to parse out volunteer activities not done through any organization. An increasing in working with people in your neighborhood while formal organizational activity has decreased suggests that Putnam is correct in that formal organizational membership is declining, but Clark is also correct in that informal organization is stagnant or increasing. The social landscape is simply changing, not weakening.


In the graphic above, we see that the average proportion of people who volunteer in a given state ranges from between 20% and 45%. The pattern closely follows the Elazar model for where moralistic, traditionalistic, and individualistic cultures exist geographically.

More descriptive statistics maps highlighting regional differences

Regression results maps highlighting regional differences






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