Typically and historically the effects of a great recession or significant levels of unemployment have been greater civic disengagement.
There have been interesting studies on this:
- The classic study of the sociological effects of a great recession was in Marienthal by sociologists Jahoda, Lazarsfeld, and Zeisel. They examined the effects of the Great Depression on a tiny Austrian town, 20 m SE of Vienna, in 1931-1932, that captured the psychological costs for individuals exposed to prolonged unemployment, thrown into a vicious cycle of reduced opportunities and reduced aspirations to the point where they didn’t fully pursuing available opportunities. Many workers were unemployed following the closing of town flax mill that affected nearly every Marienthal family; 2 years after closure in 1931, only one in five families had one or more wage earners with regular work and 75% of families were dependent on unemployment insurance. Despite increased free time, people joined less, read library books and newspapers less, the public park fell into disrepair, and the once popular theater club was shuttered. The only organizations that benefited were those providing a direct financial benefit to individuals (e.g., the cycling club which offered insurance to members and the Social Democratic cremation society) The unemployed men in a demonstration of their lower self-esteem and lack of purpose actually slowed down their walking speed and stopped more often.
- Bob Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000) Figure 8 (p. 54) charted the civic patterns over the last 100 years through the aggregate market share of 32 civic pillars (e.g., the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Rotary, Red Cross, PTAs, etc.). The biggest single rapid decline in the last 100 years was in the Great Depression. A number of groups lost half of their members in 3-4 years in the 1930s.
- A 2008 study by Brand and Burgard using long-term panel data from the high school graduating class of 1957 in the state of Wisconsin showed that spells of unemployment have a permanent effect in depressing civic engagement. Overview at http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/bowling-alone-because-the-team-55041.aspx . Jennie Brand and Sarah Burgard. “Effects of Job Displacement on Social Participation: Findings over the Life Course of a Cohort of Joiners.” Social Forces. (September 2008). The reasons for this long-term impact are not well-known but may also be psychological.
- Cristobal Young, a graduate student rising star in Princeton’s Sociology Dept., has a forthcoming thesis with a chapter on the time effects of unemployment showing that the big increase in the unemployed is time spent alone (up by about 160 minutes a day), controlling for standard socio-demographics. Time spent with family increased by 2.25 hours a day and time spent with friends increased by about 45 minutes, but both were actually lower than the increase in time spent with families and friends on a typical weekend day. (This may be part psychological and wrapped up in self-confidence or shame, but clearly also partly a coordination issue with the schedules of friends and family members who often work weekdays and also may not want to socialize on weekday nights for that reason.)
The short answer is that we won’t know until a year or two from now when we have reliable large-scale data, but history is chastening on this score. Obviously in this business, as the mutual funds warn, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future success.
But Annie Gowen of the Washington Post examines some tea leaves in “In Recession, Some See Burst of ‘Neighboring’; Tough Times May Be Helping Build Stronger Communities in D.C. Suburbs” (5/4/09) and asserts hopeful early signs. She asserts that due to technology, governmental leadership and an active youth generation, this global recession is currently increasing engagement.
My own take is that in all likelihood there is clearly a positive impact of President Obama, who comes from a community organizing background and fully understands the importance of engagement. He ran a campaign that mobilized scores of new voters into the political process and built up an e-mail list of 13 million supporters who expressed their hunger in staying involved. He was a participant in our Saguaro Seminar, and early steps of his administration, like renewal and expansion of the national service legislation, and his volunteering on Martin Luther King day and organizing an effort to help others do so clearly provide a conducive backdrop to those with inclinations to serve. Moreover, Bob Putnam and I have written about the 9-11 Generation, and this will certainly help bolster the country’s civic engagement, aside from the effects of the recession.
It could well be that the economy will be having a negative influence on civic engagement, but that some, and maybe all of this may be countervailed by the Obama effect and the 9-11 Generation.
In any event, the evidence Gowen of the Washington Post musters is fairly anecdotal:
– In Montgomery County (MD), for example, the number of new neighborhood groups has doubled
– “… in hard-hit Manassas (VA), active groups jumped from five to 20 in the past two years.”
– Keith N. Hampton, an asst. prof. at U. Penn.’s Annenberg School, runs i-neighbors.org, a web site for neighborhood groups with 50,000 members. Hampton says that i-neighbors’ communication is up 25% this spring over last spring.
Note: Gowen doesn’t mention this in her article but there is clearly strong evidence (more related to the young generation of Americans) about big increases in interest in national service programs, like Teach for America, City Year, etc. This is probably a consequence of 2 intersecting factors, the declining job opportunities for graduating seniors at universities, and a 9-11 Generation (those in H.S. or college at the time of the September 11 attack) that has been more interested in volunteering and politics than the generation that came before.
Another journalistic article that also stresses the positive impact of recession on volunteering is “Many who lose a job find a joy: Volunteering” (Atlanta Constitution, by Gracie Bonds Staples, 5/19/09)