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Survey: Michigan can do much better on volunteering, being neighborly

Fewer Michigan residents may be freely offering their time and energy to good causes -- or even saying hello to the senior citizen down the block -- a recently released study on volunteerism and social interaction has found.

In fact, the 2012 Michigan Civic Health Index indicates that the rate of Great Lakes State participation in philanthropic and community service has dipped below the national average. Defining civic health as “a measure of how actively citizens engage in their communities,” the report states that registering to vote, helping neighbors, volunteering with service organizations, and parents assisting with activities at their children’s schools are all “ways to be actively engaged.”

“We know that civic health is linked to community well-being in a number of ways,” said Carolyn Bloodworth, chairwoman of the Michigan Community Service Commission, which co-sponsored the study. “We believe that this kind of study can help us unlock strategies to improve civic engagement and strengthen our communities as a whole.”

But a professor at the University of Michigan says the figures don’t necessarily tell the entire story.

Sponsored by the National Conference on Citizenship and six partner agencies, the Civic Health Index tracks Michigan volunteer trends back to 2002. Data from its most current years shows that:

*At 26.5 percent, the state ranked slightly lower than the national average of 26.8 percent of citizens who regularly volunteered their time in 2011; 94.2 percent committed themselves to 20 volunteer hours or more.

Volunteerism_*Michigan ranked near the bottom of all 50 states (no. 48) in 2011, with only 38.3 percent saying they frequently talked with neighbors; 43.7 percent of nationwide citizens reported doing so.

*In 2011, Michigan ranked nearly two points below the 14 percent national average of Americans who said they frequently traded favors with their neighbors.

*Just 36.2 percent of Michigan residents reported some sort of social or religious group association from 2009 to 2011, compared with 39.2 percent of citizens nationwide.

*In 2010, Michigan’s 71.4 percent exceeded the 65.1 percent national average of registered voters.

A community service expert familiar with volunteer and social trends insists the numbers tell only part of the story. The 2012 data overlooks significant indicators as to why Michigand residents may seem, on occasions, less free with their time; on others, less friendly than other state residents, said Ian Robinson, a lecturer and research scientist at the University of Michigan.

The study “describes trends, it doesn’t try very hard to explain them,” Robinson said. Questions like, “Did you vote?” and “Do you trust your neighbors?” are not consistent with research that attempts to explain behaviors like why some are donating less time to charity, he added, citing similar criticisms of leading volunteerism theorist and Harvard professor Robert Putnam.

“One of the criticisms of Putnam’s work, in trying to put all those things together, is that you’re mixing apples and oranges. There’s a difference in addressing why people aren’t voting, as opposed to why they’re not going to college, or not performing community service.”

Putnam, who wrote 1995’s “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” attempted to address some of themes present in the Civic Health Index, but some of his research is problematic, Robinson noted.

“One way to put it that came to mind as I was reading (the Index) is from an article called the ‘General Theory of Holes,’” said Robinson, who works out of U-M’s Ginsburg Center for Community Service Learning. “There are holes in the road, and those require one kind of explanation, and there are holes in the wall in the hotel room, and that requires a different kind of explanation.”

For example, he observes that little attention is given to the cause of Michigan’s decline below the national volunteerism rate average, such as the need for employment.

“This is not a society that makes it easy for you to make it on $30,000 a year with a family of four, so these are things that leave us forced to spend more time thinking about new ways to bring income,” he said.

“I don’t want to knock it, but the report is a very brief one. There are probably questions they haven’t gotten around to asking yet,” he explained.

Bloodworth does not dispute Robinson’s views about the Index’s limitations: “We didn’t want to make assumptions or be too prescriptive, and hoped this information would spark a conversation among the community to identify and drive our own outcomes together. We also hoped it would invite the exact kinds of questions that Dr. Robinson raises.”

Noting that the Index is “a time slice,” Robinson adds that he won’t completely dismiss it for lack of depth. “I don’t want to knock it, but the report is a very brief one.  There are probably questions they haven’t gotten around to asking yet.”

Bloodworth said the research will, indeed, continue annually, including findings related to “trends along other demographic lines, such as educational attainment, employment status, geography and more.

“We hope this report begins this process and invite feedback on what strategies can be develop to strengthen civic life,” she said, “as well as what questions merit further exploration in the future.”

Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a Detroit-based freelance writer and editor.

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