14 February 2007
by Ian Wilhelm
More than 61 million Americans donated their time to charity last year, the lowest number of volunteers in four years, according to new data from the US federal government.
The figure represents a drop from the 65.4 million people who said they volunteered in 2005, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year's number of volunteers was the lowest since 2002, when the federal government first began collecting such data.
The White House announced the 2006 level last week to mark the five-year anniversary of President Bush's effort to get more people to volunteer. In his 2002 State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush called on all Americans to contribute 4,000 hours over their lifetime to charity or in service to the nation. He established a new White House agency, the USA Freedom Corps, to oversee the push.
As part of the anniversary, Mr. Bush gathered scholars and nonprofit leaders at the White House to discuss volunteerism and civic engagement.
"We've got a lot of people volunteering in the country, and one of my calls is for people to do more of it," said Mr. Bush.
One of the participants at the White House event, Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard University professor of public affairs, said he suggested the president do more to help get working-class youths involved in volunteering, the political system, and other aspects of civic life.
The nation risks creating a "caste system" if middle-class children are far more engaged than their less affluent peers, he said.
Other experts, however, tried to shine some light on it.
John M. Bridgeland, former director of the USA Freedom Corps, said the 2006 figure fell most likely because the interest in volunteering spiked after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and now is starting to erode slightly.
"Over time, it is pretty hard to keep sustaining the post-9/11 wave of volunteers," he wrote The Chronicle in an e-mail message. "Many expected the numbers to fall off much sooner than they did."