why volunteering has gone up while other forms of civic engagement have declined

Because you get what you pay for. To elaborate. …

The Associated Press-GfK recently repeated survey questions that they had asked in 1984 about voting, volunteering, serving on a jury, reporting crime, knowing English, and keeping informed about news and public issues. Voting has been fairly flat, although turnout rates vary from year to year and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction depending on the competitiveness and importance of the election. Four of the measures have fallen since 1984. But volunteering is up, buoyed by a substantial increase in young people’s commitment to service.

As I said in the AP article, “That’s partly [because] we have built up our institutions for volunteering. … Something like 30 percent of high schools have service learning programs. They didn’t have that in the 1980s.” We could also cite a substantial investment in youth volunteering through AmeriCorps, Campus Compact’s member colleges, and so on. Proponents of service have won new funding and rewards for volunteering, positive media coverage, intensive research and evaluation, and favorable policies, including mandates in many school districts.

There has been no comparable investment in the other forms of civic engagement. That is why they have stagnated or fallen.¬†If, for example, schools cease to emphasize news literacy education, and the news industry fails to encourage young readers, then “keeping informed about news and public issues” will fall.¬†Measures of civic obligation are mostly proxies for the civic opportunities we offer people.

I’d also offer an observation about the obligation to know English, one of the variables in the AP survey that fell between 1984 and 2014. It’s unique among the items because everyone who took the survey did know English. (It was an English-language instrument.) Thus the decline is not attributable to falling levels of engagement among people in the sample. Instead, respondents essentially had to decide whether it was a civic obligation for others to know English. I can imagine that the decline is explained by a lessening belief that immigrants are obliged to learn English, although (importantly) young immigrants do learn the majority language. An alternative explanation is that people are less likely to see the purpose of learning English as civic because they see civic engagement as less salient than they did in 1984. That would be bad news–but again, more a symptom of declining opportunities for engagement than a moral slide.