In order to give back, you’ve got to have something to give. Perhaps that’s part of the message to be gleaned from the plea for more help issued by volunteer groups in Cambria, as reported in Kathe Tanner’s story last week.
There are various explanations for why good causes are having a harder time finding helping hands these days.
Bob Putney, district director for the Boy Scouts, told Kathe in an interview for The Cambrian that it can be difficult to keep parent volunteers after their children have outgrown Scouting.
Crosby Schwartz, co-chairman of the Cambria Forest Committee, reasoned that the sometimes-heated debate over the emergency water supply project “may have reduced the community’s enthusiasm for volunteering to work together on anything.”
Yet the decline in volunteerism isn’t unique to Cambria. Nationwide, the percentage of Americans who volunteered their time fell to 25.4 percent in 2013. That’s the lowest figure since the Corporation for National and Community Services began keeping tabs in 2002, when the level was 27.4 percent — and 3.4 percentage points below its peak in the early 2000s.
The number of hours each volunteer worked has also slipped noticeably, falling from a peak of 37.9 hours each in 2004 to 32.1 hours in 2013.
It’s no surprise that the initial decline in volunteerism coincided roughly with the onset of the Great Recession. But instead of rebounding once the downturn was over, the figures fell even further, hitting their low point to date four years after the recession was declared officially over.
The economic recovery has been gradual, to be sure. But shouldn’t we have expected a similarly gradual increase in volunteer activity, rather than a continued drop?
The answer may lie in the fact that, while employment has rebounded since the official end of the recession, pay has not. Real median household income in 2013 was $52,250, nearly 7 percent below what it was before the recession hit.
And those households, increasingly, are dual-earner households. Long gone are the days when a single breadwinner accounted for virtually all a family’s income. These days, two incomes are needed to pay for food, utilities, transportation and medical care. That’s not to mention education and child care.
The median sale price of a home in San Luis Obispo County was $470,000 in December. Try affording that on one income if you’re not a CEO, physician, attorney or at least a midlevel executive.
The percentage of Americans who actually own their homes has fallen 5 percentage points since 2004, but don’t look for any relief if you’re trying to rent: Rental costs have soared by a staggering 52 percent in the past decade and a half.
Say you’re a single mom living in SLO County with a baby and a child in elementary school. You’d have to earn more than $31 an hour — or nearly $66,000 a year — just to make ends meet, according to a study released late last year by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. And that’s in San Luis Obispo County at large. If you’ve checked the prices of gasoline, housing, etc. in Cambria of late, you’d have to conclude that the cost here would be appreciably higher.
With such financial pressures on working families to put in longer hours, is it any wonder that today’s young and middle-aged families don’t have the hours to dedicate to volunteerism that they once did?
Meanwhile, many older volunteers — those past retirement age — are unable to maintain the same level of involvement.
“In our age bracket, many of us are ‘aging and breaking,’ ” Consuelo Macedo, community relations chairwoman of the Cambria Historical Society board, told Tanner for her story.
With fewer people helping out, those who do volunteer are asked to do more (and risk burning out), or worthwhile tasks simply don’t get done.
Trash may accumulate along the beach. Fewer trees may get planted to replace those Monterey pines that are dying in the drought. Access to historical resources may be curtailed because there aren’t enough workers to staff museums and landmarks. Volunteers are needed to rescue marine mammals, to help often overworked teachers at public schools, and to put together special events honoring our nation’s veterans.
The ripple effect extends beyond tasks left undone. Volunteering helps people connect — with one another and with their community at large. When those connections are severed, not only do needs go unmet, they often remain unknown. How can we know if our neighbors are in need when we’re too busy meeting quotas in our cubicles to interact with them?
The answer is, of course, we can’t.
In the final analysis, perhaps it’s not just the older generation that’s “aging and breaking.” Perhaps it’s our connection to one another — and to some of the values we’ve long held dear.