In this blog, I will refer to data collected between September 2013 and September 2014, because it is the latest available data on the National Community Service web page.
The National Community Service web-page states:
The volunteer rate remained steady as 62.8 million Americans volunteered 7.9 billion hours last year. Based on the Independent Sector's estimate of the average value of a volunteer hour ($23.07 in 2014), the estimated value of this volunteer service is nearly $184 billion... Over the last 13 years, Americans volunteered 104.9 billion hours, estimated to be worth $2.1 trillion.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics writes:
About 62.8 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2013 and September 2014. That was 25.3 percent of the population16 years and older. The main organization where volunteers worked was most often religious (33.3 percent of all volunteers). Many volunteers also worked at educational or youth service organizations (25.1percent) and social or community service organizations (14.4percent).
Let us just allow this to sink in for a moment: volunteers provided, in unpaid labor, an estimated $2.1 trillion over the last 13 years that we have data from, and almost $184 billion in the last year for which we have data. Given these numbers it is fair to say that in the USA volunteers have been for quite some time now a substantial unpaid work force on which many organizations depend. Considering the kind of organizations volunteers worked for, we can surely agree that the volunteers among us are those who are committed to helping their neighbors, to serving their communities, and to promoting the welfare of all members of society. That so many people are willing to give so much of their time and talents freely so that others can have more enjoyable lives and a better chance to strive should be reason to celebrate. It really should be. Yet, no good deed goes unpunished. The fact that volunteers have provided so many services for their communities and for society as a whole has been abused, for many years now, as an excuse to keep cutting back funding for fundamentally important services that have been provided by the government in the past. While the rich and powerful, equipped with insane amounts of money and armies of lobbyists, get away with doing less and less for the common welfare of the people of this country, those of us whose social safety net has been weakened, whose well-paying jobs have vanished, and whose standard of living has stagnated or declined over the last decades are being asked to work for free to fill in the gaps.
For quite some time now, all of this has left me with many questions. Is it even morally acceptable to work for free, performing jobs society depends on to meet the basic needs, while so many are either unemployed or underemployed? Are well-intentioned volunteers not sometimes unintentionally taking away job opportunities from those who are desperately seeking jobs? Should we not shift our volunteer efforts towards lobbying activities, which push the government to again use its power for the common welfare of the people of this country? After all, rather than trying to fill the gaps left in our social safety net by working for free, it might be more effective to volunteer our time lobbying our representatives to provide a social safety net that truly protects people by ensuring that their basic needs are being met when they are old, or are facing a catastrophic life event, like an accident, an illness, or the loss of a job. Instead of helping out overworked teachers in overcrowded and ill-equipped classrooms, it might be better to volunteer our time lobbying for more funding for our not-for-profit public schools. I am sure you get my point, and could come up with many more examples on your own.
I feel that if we keep compensating for bad policy and budget decisions by minimizing their consequences through our own unpaid labor, we will make it less likely that meaningful change will happen. I believe it would be worthwhile to consider shifting our volunteer efforts towards becoming volunteer activists who work to affect lasting change. It is time that we recognize and acknowledge that volunteering efforts cannot fill the gaps that have been created by funding cuts to fundamentally important services, courtesy of politicians who pander to the greed of the rich and prefer ideology and illusion over reality. As more volunteers move towards lobbying activities, jobs previously filled by unpaid workers will open up, and at least some will be filled by paid employees. This will lead to less unemployment, more opportunity for those currently left behind, higher tax revenue, and economic growth, since more people would have money to spend.
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I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!