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Topic Archives: Volunteering

Why This Counts: Volunteering in the United States

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is best known for our monthly job and inflation reports. We also publish data on many other topics, ranging from how Americans spend their time and money to workplace injuries and the growth of entrepreneurship. My new blog series, “Why This Counts,” will explain why we conduct our surveys and how people can use the data at work and home. I hope this series will take the mystery out of our data and make our work come to life for both new and advanced users.

We recently released data on volunteering in the United States. About 62.8 million people volunteered for an organization at least once between September 2013 and September 2014. That’s 25.3 percent of the nation’s civilian population age 16 and older.


Why do we produce these volunteering data, and how do they affect you?

The mission of BLS and the other federal statistical agencies is to provide quality, unbiased data to support better decisions. Data about volunteers show how volunteering in the United States may be changing. People in communities across the country can use the data to understand civic engagement.

The latest volunteering data come from questions asked in the September 2014 Current Population Survey. That’s the monthly household survey that collects information about people who are working, looking for work, or not in the labor force.

The Corporation for National and Community Service provides funding to ask the questions about volunteering. That federal agency helps Americans improve the lives of their fellow citizens through service.

Volunteers are people who performed unpaid volunteer tasks through or for an organization at any point during the survey reference year. (That’s September 1, 2013, through the week of September 12, 2014.) We ask questions about the number of hours people volunteered, the organizations they served, and the tasks they performed.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, charities, and others use the data to track national volunteering rates and conduct research on volunteer retention, services, and more.

The volunteer data track the number of volunteers in America, their characteristics, and the things they do to serve others. These data help volunteer organizations decide the best ways to recruit volunteers, care for seniors, help communities respond to disasters, teach people to read, and much more.

I’m happy that we produce these data to examine the important, though unpaid, contributions that volunteers make to our economy.

Learning about data needs from our customers and partners

With the current interest in labor market conditions, the end of September was a busy time for me—full of good opportunities to speak with some of our customers and partners. BLS serves many different types of customers in fulfilling our mission to bring you objective, relevant, high-quality statistics and analysis in a timely manner. The public—individuals, businesses, and policymakers—all need this information to make better decisions. Thus, we need to understand our customers’ needs. We have forged many partnerships over the years to learn about those needs and how best to conduct our work.

On September 18 I spoke at the meeting in Burlington, Vermont, of the Board of Directors of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA). NASWA is an organization of state administrators of unemployment insurance laws, employment services, training programs, employment statistics, and labor market information. Many of our statistical programs at BLS are conducted through partnerships with the state workforce agencies that compose NASWA. I spoke to NASWA members about how we can strengthen our already strong partnerships to use new technologies and data sources to serve the ever-growing data needs of businesses, workers, jobseekers, households, and public policymakers at the national, state, and local levels.

A few days after the NASWA meeting, I spoke in Washington at a meeting cosponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the International Monetary Fund. The topic of the meeting was “Policy implications of the new U.S. labor market normal.” I took the opportunity to speak to the audience not just about the economic statistics we see in headlines, such as the unemployment rate and job growth, but about other measures that may not be as well known. A few examples of these are the declining but still high levels of long-term unemployment, the still-low number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs, and the decline since 1998 in job gains from new establishments. I also discussed the slow growth in wages and benefits in recent years. I noted that our nation’s output of goods and services in the business sector increased more than eightfold since 1947, while the total hours worked has not quite doubled. That difference between the growth in output and hours represents productivity growth. Measures of productivity growth are important because, as our economy becomes more efficient, workers and business owners can share the gains and improve living standards. While productivity growth is essential for compensation growth, the two don’t always move in lockstep. Of particular note, since 1973, productivity has expanded at an average rate of 1.8 percent annually, while real hourly compensation has grown at half that rate, 0.9 percent.

Two days later, BLS Associate Commissioner Michael Horrigan and I participated in a conference in Washington at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The topic of the conference was “Labor Market Slack: Assessing and Addressing in Real Time.” I chaired a discussion session that examined the question, “Can we reconcile slow wage growth and demographic labor supply decline?” In a discussion session on measures of slack, Michael Horrigan described the important perspectives that several BLS programs provide on labor market slack.

At the end of September I spoke in Chicago at the annual meeting of the National Association for Business Economics (NABE). NABE’s members include business economists and others who use economics in the workplace. My talk focused on the opportunities and challenges BLS faces in the years to come. I highlighted some of our recent improvements to data and services, such as the new aggregation system for the Producer Price Index, the BLS Application Programming Interface (API), and the maps and tables of hurricane flood zones on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. I also talked about some improvements that are coming soon, such as modernizing the Consumer Expenditure Survey, providing data on employment and wages in nonprofit organizations, and adding questions to the monthly Current Population Survey about professional certifications and licenses. Our goal at BLS is to be more flexible, modern, and responsive to the nation’s growing data needs. We need to expand our data offerings, but we can’t sacrifice quality, and we must provide the best value for taxpayer dollars.

I always enjoy speaking to groups like these because it helps me and other BLS leaders learn more about the needs of our data users. The more we know about those needs, the better we can provide the public with data that are most useful—that is, accurate, objective, relevant, timely, and accessible.

Time spent volunteering in 2013

In contrast to the usual BLS focus on paid employment (counting how many people are employed, their pay and benefits, and characteristics of workers and their jobs), this week we have a new BLS report about the important unpaid work that Americans do through volunteer activities. About 62.6 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2012 and September 2013. The volunteer rate in 2013 was 25.4 percent, the lowest it has been since BLS began collecting comparable statistics about volunteers in 2002. Volunteers spent a median of 50 hours on volunteer activities from September 2012 to September 2013. Time spent on volunteer activities was similar for women and men. Among those who volunteered, median annual hours spent on volunteer activities ranged from a low of 36 hours for people 25 to 34 years old to a high of 86 hours for people age 65 and older.

In 2013, the organization for which the volunteer worked the most hours was most frequently religious (33.0 percent of all volunteers), followed by educational or youth service related (25.6 percent) and social or community service organizations (14.7 percent). Among volunteers with children under 18 years old, 44.5 percent of mothers and 38.3 percent of fathers volunteered mainly for an educational or youth service organization, such as a school or scouting group. Volunteers without children under age 18 were more likely than parents to volunteer for other types of organizations, such as social or community service organizations and religious organizations.

The activities that volunteers performed most frequently for their main organization were collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food (10.9 percent), fundraising (10.0 percent), and tutoring or teaching (9.8 percent). Men and women tended to engage in different main activities. Men who volunteered were most likely to engage in general labor (11.4 percent) or coach, referee, or supervise sports teams (9.9 percent). Women were most likely to collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (12.5 percent), fundraise (11.5 percent), or tutor or teach (11.4 percent).

The daily feature The Economics Daily includes some eye-catching interesting graphics on the characteristics of volunteers and their volunteer activities.

In closing, I want to mention that this week we posted a notice about the 2014 Budget Enacted for Bureau of Labor Statistics. In order to achieve the necessary savings for this funding level and protect core programs, the BLS will curtail the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages and the International Price Program. Through these measures, BLS will be able to preserve the quality of its remaining products.