Ailing Public Service Needs An Energy Infusion

Seeing Lady Gaga dive off the roof of NRG Stadium in Houston during the Super Bowl half-time show (although she really didn’t) was the highlight of the non-snaps from center for some football and music fans. The highlight for other viewers was President H.W. Bush, just out of the hospital, flipping the coin to see which team would kick-off and which would receive.

At 92, he is the oldest former president still with us, topping Jimmy Carter by just four months. The half-time video of drones colored red, white and blue and arranged as an American flag could just as well have been a tribute to President Bush’s 1,000 points of light than part of Lady Gaga’s theatrics.

President Bush (often affectionately referred to as 41) truly was the public service president. The Daily Point of Light Award from the White House was the launching pad for renewed attention on national service that lasted for decades.

What happened to the national service and volunteer fervor that topped out at 65.357 million volunteers age 16 and older in 2005? The statistics are shaky prior to 2002 but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) some 59.783 million Americans age 16 and older volunteered that year. The U.S. population was 287.6 million. That’s 27.4 percent of the population pitching in to make their communities better.

Volunteering climbed to 28.8 percent of the population during 2003 and stayed there through 2005 when it plunged to 26.7 percent in 2006 and in 2015 dipped to 24.9 percent.

Here’s the challenge. That pinnacle of 65.357 million volunteers was down to 62.623 million for 2015, the last year for which there are statistics while the overall U.S. population increased 7.1 percent. That’s 24.7 million more people but 2.9 million fewer volunteers.

Here are a few more numbers. The BLS reported 28.5 people of people 25 and older volunteered during 2002 and that percentage cratered to 18.4 percent for 2015. The actual number of people increased from 59.7 million to 62.62 million, again not keeping up with population growth.

Where did everyone go? Is the party breaking up so early? Here’s where it went. Volunteers 35 to 44 vaporized by the millions, from 14.9 million in 2002 to 11.4 million in 2015. But wait, you say. Americans are getting older and those numbers will jump into the next age category. Nope. The numbers in the 45 to 54 age category dropped from 12.4 million in 2002 to 11.9 million for 2015.

It can be argued that Americans are very generous with time and treasure because we are born that way. It appears, though, that some are viewing the activity as a bad romance and that they don’t want to be friends with the sector.

Young people still apply for federal programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, although they are targeted for elimination in the next federal budget. Organizations such as City Year are also holding their own on a national basis with softness in some areas. Points of Light and the HandsOn Network it acquired a few years back are working locally as are volunteer centers.

The effort somehow is not as effective as it could be as the numbers continue to decline. There is an opportunity in the chaos in Washington, D.C. Forgetting the politics, there is a renewed energy with marches every weekend in the national capitol and they are spreading across the nation. People are being brought into the discussion who have never before been involved in issues.

The election — again forgetting the politics — has instigated a drive in people to know more about what’s going on and realizing how it directly impacts them. Local community action is where the volunteer numbers can begin to rebound. Nonprofit leaders have to harness the willingness to get vocal on a weekend into other productive, sustained community interests.

It’s something that would make “41” proud.