the benefits of service for low-income youth

Here are five key points for anyone who promotes service as a means to improve the success of low-income young people.

1. Teenagers who participate in community service have much better academic and psycho-social outcomes than their peers.

Sources: Alberto Dávila and Marie T. Mora, “An Assessment of Civic Engagement and Educational Attainment” (Medford, MA: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2007); Christopher Spera, Robin Ghertner, Anthony Nerino, and Adrienne DiTommaso, Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment: Does Volunteering Increase Odds of Finding a Job for the Out of Work? (Washington, DC: Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Evaluation, 2013); Dawn Anderson-Butcher, W. Sean Newsome, Theresa M. Ferrari, “Participation in Boys & Girls Clubs and Relationships to Youth Outcomes,” Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 31, No. 1 (2003), pp. 39–55; Jennifer A. Fredericks and Jacquelynne S. Eccles, “Is Extracurricular Participation Associated with Beneficial Outcomes? Concurrent and Longitudinal Relations,” Developmental Psychology, vol. 42, no. 4 (2006), pp. 698-713.

Caveat: These correlations do not prove causation. Teenagers who serve may have personality traits or positive influences from peers, families, institutions, and communities that also explain why they succeed academically. Besides, service clubs and programs have other features (apart from service) that may explain their benefits.

2. At risk-youth enrolled in certain programs that involve service see substantial improvements in academic and economic outcomes

Sources: CIRCLE, “Pathways into Leadership: A Study of YouthBuild Graduates” (Medford: MA, CIRCLE, 2012); Megan Millenky, Dan Bloom, Sara Muller-Ravett, and Joseph Broadus, Staying on Course: Three-Year Results of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Evaluation (New York: MDRC, 2011); Constance Flanagan & Peter Levine, “Youth Civic Engagement During the Transition to Adulthood,” in Mary Waters, Gordon Berlin, and Frank Furstenberg (eds.), Transition to Adulthood (Princeton/Brookings: The Future of Children), vol. 20, no. 1, Spring 2010, pp. 159-180.

Caveats: These programs always have other aspects besides service (e.g., caring adults; academic coursework, sometimes residential living). Also, the evaluation methods leave some uncertainty about causation.

3. Service programs have characteristics that resemble the 21st Century workplace. Therefore, they should prepare students for success in the job market.

Sources: Reed W. Larson and Rachel M. Angus, “Adolescents’ Development of Skills for Agency in Youth Programs: Learning to Think Strategically,” Child Development, vol. 82, issue 1, pp. 277–294; Peter Levine, “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: The Economic Impact of Public Work in America’s Colleges and Universities,” in Harry C. Boyte (ed.), Democracy’s Education: A Symposium on Power, Public Work, and the Meaning of Citizenship (Vanderbilt University Press, in press)

Caveats: Service programs vary in the degree to which they impart valuable skills and habits. Other factors besides skills and habits affect success in the job market. Students may actually obtain valuable skills but not be able to demonstrate those skills to potential employers.

4. There is some evidence that hiring managers see volunteering as relevant experience to consider when making employment decisions.

Sources: CareerBuilder Study Reveals Surprising Factors that Play a Part in Determining Who Gets Hired,” August 28, 2013; Deloitte, “2013 Volunteer IMPACT Survey.”

Caveats: These are based on surveys of managers, who may say they want to hire volunteers even though volunteering does not actually matter.

5. Communities with more civic engagement have much better economic, educational, and social outcomes than similar communities with less engagement.

Sources: Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Chaeyoon Lim & Peter Levine, “Civic Health and Unemployment II: The Case Builds,” National Conference on Citizenship: Washington, DC, 2012; Robert D. Putnam, “Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance,” in Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti (eds.), Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 58-95; Robert J. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Sean Safford, Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); Peter Levine, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Caveats: In these studies, volunteering per se does not predict economic success. Other civic engagement variables–e.g., the number of nonprofits per capita; the density of civic networks; or “collective efficacy”–are the predictors. Also, we do not know whether increasing the civic engagement of (some) youth would boost their communities’ civic engagement in a lasting way.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.