Austerity and engagement: what happens to voluntary action in hard times?

What effects have recession and austerity had on engagement in communities? And what implications does the evidence have for the capacity of communities to cope with both with short-term challenges and, in the longer term, about the likely permanent shrinkage of the state? A recent report by the Institute for Volunteering Research looks at the question of “volunteering during the downturn”. They argue that volunteering rates (proportion of the population engaged) have been fairly stable in recent years but the headline figures from the Citizenship Survey and Community Life Survey which they quote hide a more complex, and arguably more challenging, story.

For example, if you focus on volunteering rates, what happens to the level of engagement (e.g. the amount of effort people put in)? There is important work on this in Tom Clark and Anthony Heath’s Hard Times, a compelling synthesis of rigorous social science research including both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Measuring change in voluntary activity over time is not straightforward – panel surveys of individuals ask a limited range of questions and/or do so at very infrequent intervals. Clark and Heath exploit the Citizenship Survey, which ran from 2001 – 2011, initially at two-year intervals but, from 2007, gathered data continuously; thus there is both an annual series of statistics and quarterly figures for four years. There’s an overview in the Guardian and a longer extract on the Demos website.

Debate about voluntary activity often emphasises headline figures like the proportion of the population engaged, to the neglect of the level of engagement (as we in the Third Sector Research Centre argued in our discussion of the “civic core”). In Hard Times, the authors analyse what happens to the amount of effort people put in, as measured by the hours of formal volunteering (i.e. time given through organised structures) and informal volunteering (help given within their local community to people who are not family members). The availability of quarterly data is central to their analysis because they can detect short-run change. They find that although overall volunteering rates declined under recessionary conditions in 2008-9, the key story was a substantial reduction in the average hours given by the population to both formal and informal volunteering. It would be possible to explain the former in terms of households cutting back on travel costs or other financial support for the voluntary organisations of which they were members. But the authors were disturbed by the evidence that informal networks of kindness appeared to have shrunk equally rapidly. In both cases, the reduction was most rapid in the most disadvantaged parts of the country.

If the recession had had these negative impacts, could we anticipate that, as the economy improves, people will become re-engaged? That’s not what the evidence suggests – instead, according to the authors, surveys show that in previous economic downturns, people who lost their jobs during their thirties came to be less civically engaged in their forties, and the gap grew wider as they continued to age.

As you’d expect the emerging evidence on trends in voluntary action post-2010 has had greater or lesser amounts of coverage depending on what it tells us. Contrast the enthusiastic reception to the first wave of the Community Life survey – the survey went live not long after the 2012 Olympics, which of course gave volunteering a very high profile – with the very quiet release of the subsequent waves.

No doubt volunteering rates and levels will become a political football in the months ahead. You could argue that it’s very difficult to shift the dials in an upward direction – in other words, achieving a significant upward shift in voluntary activity – though you might also take a contrary view and argue that despite everything that’s happened to the British economy and society in recent years, the rate and level of engagement has remained more or less stable.

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