Disadvantaged Teens Benefit from Volunteering, But Do it Less than Better-Off Peers

April 9, 2007

A new federal study has found that volunteering produces many positive benefits for teens from low-income backgrounds - they become empowered, are more likely to volunteer and become politically engaged, and believe they will graduate from college and make a difference in their communities.

But the study by the Corporation for National and Community Service also found a disturbing “class gap” in teen volunteer rates. Youth from disadvantaged circumstances have a volunteer rate of 43 percent, compared to 59 percent for other youth. They are also much less likely than other youth to take part in service-learning or school civic clubs.

“This study highlights service as one of our most effective and positive interventions in a young person's life. For youth at risk of hopelessness and despair, service builds social networks, trust, confidence, skills, initiative and lots of other tools that can help them succeed in life,” said Corporation CEO David Eisner. “We need to do two things: reach more disadvantaged youth through service, and help more providers of youth services to engage young people as assets rather than simply treating them as clients.”

The study, “Leveling the Path to Participation: Volunteering and Civic Engagement among Youth from Disadvantaged Circumstances,” is the third of the Youth Helping America series of reports based on interviews with 3,178 American youth ages 12 to 18 conducted between January and March of 2005. The report is on the Corporation’s website at http://www.nationalservice.gov.

The overall rate of teen volunteering is robust and is on the rise. In 2004, more than 15.5 million teenagers volunteered, contributing more than 1.3 billion hours of service. That translates into a rate of 55 percent, more than double the rate of adults. The rate of volunteering among older teenagers (ages 16-19) today is more than double what it was in 1989.

Youth experts have long believed that the act of serving others can build confidence, a sense of responsibility, and social connectedness that is beneficial both to the young volunteer and the larger community. The study confirmed that youth from disadvantaged backgrounds who volunteer demonstrated more positive civic attitudes and behaviors than youth from disadvantaged backgrounds who didn’t:

Almost 40% more likely to believe that they can make some difference or a great deal of difference in their community (70% and 51%, respectively).

Nearly 50% more likely to say they are very likely to graduate from a four-year college (76% and 51%, respectively).

Twice as likely to discuss politics with their parents, other adults, or friends.

3.5 times more likely to say they are very likely to volunteer in the next year (52% to 15%, respectively).
In looking at where youth from disadvantaged backgrounds volunteer, clear patterns emerge. They are more likely to volunteer with religious organizations and less likely to volunteer with youth civic or leadership groups. Forty-eight percent of youth from disadvantaged backgrounds say they volunteer because of their religious or spiritual beliefs, compared to 36 percent of other youth volunteers. In addition, 39 percent of youth from disadvantaged circumstances who volunteer do so through religious congregations, compared to 33 percent of other youth. This suggests that faith-based organizations are a key pathway for engaging more youth from disadvantaged backgrounds in service.

School is another key driver of volunteering by youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. Youth are most likely to volunteer because they are asked, and a teacher is the most likely person to make the request. This finding suggests the importance of expanding service-learning to more classrooms in America. Service-learning – a teaching method that combines academic instruction with community service -- has proven to be especially effective in helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds become more engaged in learning and do better in school.

In looking at motivations, youth from disadvantaged circumstances gave the same primary reason for volunteering as their peers from higher income backgrounds: the importance of helping others. But the groups split ways when asked about other motivations to volunteer. Youth from disadvantaged circumstances are much more likely than non-disadvantaged youth to be motivated to volunteer in order to gain work experience. This finding suggests that organizations aiming to attract youth from disadvantaged backgrounds into service should make sure to offer volunteer opportunities that can provide useful work and career skills.

The Corporation for National and Community Service has a long history of investing in programs that engage youth from low-income families in service, and has recently stepped up those efforts. Tens of thousands of young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds serve in youth corps that are part of the agency’s AmeriCorps program, gaining valuable skills and money for college while meeting local environmental and public safety needs. More than 400,000 students from low-income backgrounds engage in K-12 service-learning programs supported by the Corporation’s Learn and Serve America program each year.

Building on those efforts, the Corporation released a five-year strategic plan in 2006 that set a national goal of engaging more than three million youth from disadvantaged circumstances in service by the year 2010. In addition to emphasizing this goal in grants and program guidelines, the agency is launching a “Summer of Service,” a new initiative to engage youth, particularly those from disadvantaged circumstances, in high-quality, service-related activity during the summer months. The Corporation is encouraging camps and other youth organizations to include community service and service-learning as part of their summer activities. As part of this effort, the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps is operating a three-week residential program of community service for youth ages 14 to 17 in three cities—Charleston, SC; Denver, CO; and New Orleans, LA.

“Over and over, we’ve seen how service can have a powerful impact on a young person’s life,” said Eisner. “By starting early and unleashing the energy and idealism of young people, we can help meet pressing needs and create a generation of lifelong citizens.”

Data for the report came from the 2005 Youth Volunteering and Civic Engagement Survey, conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service in collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau and Independent Sector. For purposes of this analysis, youth were considered to be from disadvantaged circumstances when their family's income was less than or equal to 200 percent of the poverty level, following the 2005 federal poverty guidelines. The first two reports in the Youth Helping America Series “Building Active Citizens: The Role of Social Institutions in Teen Volunteering” (November 2005) and “Educating for Active Citizenship: Service-Learning, School-Based Service, and Civic Engagement” (March 2006) are available on the Research and Policy page of http://www.nationalservice.gov.

The Corporation for National and Community Service improves lives, strengthens communities, and fosters civic engagement through service and volunteering. Through its Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and Learn and Serve America programs, the Corporation provides opportunities for Americans of all ages and backgrounds to serve their communities. Together with USA Freedom Corps, the Corporation is working to foster a culture of citizenship, service, and responsibility in America. For more information, visit http://www.nationalservice.gov.