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Debt And The Intellectual Life, Part II: Effects On Service

April 19, 2007

When I wrote on debt and the intellectual life last week, my intent was to catalog, with minimal emotion, the real interactions between the two topics. With today’s post I’m amending that catalog. A Chicago Tribune article reminded of one important area I left out: the topic of service, professional and otherwise.

The Tribune piece, authored by Charles Storch, speaks to Illinois’ relatively low place (29th) among the fifty United States in terms of “the rate of adults volunteering at organizations.” Worse yet, Illinois “ranks 38th under a new gauge of civic engagement that includes such activities as working with neighbors and voting.” In relaying these rankings Storch is reporting numbers computed by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).

There’s more. The number of “unpaid volunteers” in Illinois “fell by 5.5 percent, to 2.75 million — equal to 28 percent of the state’s adult population in 2006. That ‘volunteer rate’ was better than the U.S. average last year of 26.7 percent but below the 32.1 percent for the Midwest. The Midwest had the highest regional rate.”

Nationally, the CNCS found “that the total number of Americans age 16 or older volunteering for or through an organization slipped by 6.4 percent, to 61.2 million, last year from 65.4 million in 2005. . . . The agency inaugurated the state-by-state analysis last year. Once again Utah led all states, this time with a 45.9 percent volunteer rate. Nevada again was last, this time with a 17.5 percent rate.”

But why have overall rates fallen? “David Eisner, the agency’s chief executive, . . . noted that states such as Illinois with large metropolitan areas tend to have ‘more transient communities with fewer well-developed social networks,’ . . . [and added] that there is a correlation between strong social networks and high levels of volunteering.”

Yet “social networks” and the numbers of “transient communities” do not tell the whole story of decreased volunteering. I think that story must necessarily become a part of the larger story about the widening income gap in the United States.

For debtor students and scholars, the future and current members of this shrinking middle class, the math on volunteering is pretty simple: The excess time and energy spent in performing additional subsistence work to repay debts means, necessarily, little time or energy for service.

But do the debts of scholars and higher education students matter any more than the debts of others? How is their debt any more significant than that of a businessperson, farmer, retail worker, or automobile mechanic? To answer the second question, it’s because I don’t doubt that the working and upper classes give more. This is in accordance with John Stossel’s “Cheap in America” report delivered last November (11/29/2006). It’s the middle class in the U.S. that clearly does not give enough, definitely in terms of dollars and likely in terms of service. And those that populate higher education in the U.S. come from variations of the middle class (lower, middle, upper), whether as students, scholars, or administrators.

In returning to my two questions above, it’s not strictly the location of the debt in terms of economic class that matters. It’s rather the ways in which the educational apparatus of the United States is intertwined with service and the middle class.

To begin, there seems to be an assumption that students and scholars have extra time for “extracurricular” activities. Many of those extracurriculars consist of service. The role of service in that time is one of uplift: extracurriculars are supposed to raise up the hearts and minds of both the giver and receiver. The nature of service is reflected in the activities in which givers participate. Storch’s article noted that the “informal acts” of service include “working with neighbors on local projects, attending public meetings and voting in national elections.” And “the three most prevalent places [where] Illinoisans[, for instance,] volunteered were religious groups, educational or youth service organizations, and social or community service agencies.” Please note the fact that educational activities form part of the core of all service endeavors.

Storch’s article didn’t contain a profile of the average volunteer, l’homme moyen if you will. But I’m going to take some guesses at a statistical mode of the volunteer cohort (whether I like the profiles or not). The main group is likely Caucasian, middle to upper-class, female, and college educated (obviously making a mockery of my fancy French, male allusion). I’d guess that the second and third most frequent profiles are college student and church worker/volunteer. For this latter, secondary and tertiary class, there’s little doubt that debt plays a part in the time they have for giving.

In sum, if you stress undergraduate and graduate students with debt, you likely likely decreases the chances that they’ll volunteer as such. And that decrease is likely to continue for two reasons. First because of the same debt and future subsistence stress. But decreased volunteerism might also remain so out of habit. If the habit of service is interrupted in one’s youth, then those future and aspiring middle-class denizens will be less likely to give later. In this way higher education debt is borrowing from all future charity endeavors – civic, church, education, and otherwise – in the United States.

I’ve felt the effects of debt on my personal service ethic. I want to give, but simply have little time for it. This month, between time and travel to events, I’ve given about 13 hours to the Chicago Metro History Education Center’s annual History Fair. I love the fair, and they feed you for your efforts, but that time was on top of my M-F, 9-5 gig. This not a complaint but a statement of reality: the time and energy spent on the History Fair, one of my few additive service activities, subtracted from time needed for reading, article revision, book manuscript revision, and keeping up with some additional, low-level teaching commitments.

On the last, I should mention that my current day job probably amounts, in academia’s terms, to the work of an assistant professor with a 4/4 or 5/5 load (depending on the class size and level of course). In order stay slightly ahead of debts and maintain some modicum of a middle-class lifestyle, I’m currently teaching 2-3 adult education seminars per year (no assessment, so not onerous), and may even add a one-course adjunct job this fall (not sure about this).

These reflections can be boiled down to a restatement of the “math” of the situation: Between daily subsistence work, additional work, and keeping up a minimal pace in terms of writing (articles and books), for me there’s little energy or time left for service. Not only is there barely enough time left for my own intellectual development and upkeep, but there’s little time to pass on what I’ve learned to others.

Again, as with last week’s post, this is not a complaint. However I will concede that, for me, not being able to participate in various service opportunities hurts more than not attending a conference or publishing an article. For instance, my faith matters to me, and debt cuts into my ability to participate in church activities.

Even so, I’m trying to not write these entries out of sour grapes. I’m writing because I’m not sure there are enough assessments, “out there,” of this part of the current situation. By this part I mean the following: non-traditional aspirants, from less means and enabled by loan monies, attempting to move into the intellectual life of the United States. Future aspirants need to know the effects of debt on their potential to freely participate in any traditional intellectual community. And in relation to this particular post, this particular branch of aspirants needs to realize that their time available for service will be, regrettably, scarce to nonexistent.

I hope this is my last post on the subject. It’s a bit depressing to recount these things. But if I feel more parts (III and onward) are necessary, I’ll continue to add to the string when the “inspiration” arises.

Thoughts? Let me know. – TL

——————————
FYI: From the Tribune article: “The value of a volunteer hour rose by 4 percent, to $18.77, in 2006 from $18.04 in 2005, said Independent Sector. The Washington- based coalition of non-profits calculates the number using government wage data and a kicker for fringe benefits.”

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4 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Hi Tim,

    What a great blog! I just stumbled on it, and it's so relevant and topical, very insightful. . .

    I like to keep my anonymity on the Web, so I'll just sign off as your overeducated friend from the laundromat (although I haven't seen you there for a while).

    Cheers!

    Like

  2. If this is who I think it is (HB?), thanks for coming by! – TL

    Like

  3. Anonymous permalink

    You may want to look at volunteer rates from 2000, 2001, and 2002 to get a better picture of what it means that they dropped off this last year. Rates skyrocketed after (wait for it) September 11, 2001. The current drop is probably a normalization to more typical levels.
    -Alexis

    Like

  4. Alexis,

    Thanks for noting that. I don't know if the article I cited corrected its statistics for 9/11 considerations.

    – TL

    Like

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