Americans prefer volunteerism to politics, and how Floridians stack up

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A new USA TODAY/Bipartisan Policy Center Poll found that Americans are turning to volunteerism and charities as the best way to make positive changes in society, rather than being active in politics.  Those younger than 30 are especially turned off by politics and are significantly less likely than their parents to feel that political action is an important value in their lives. According to the poll, while the worlds of civic life and public life used to be the same, Americans are increasingly looking to community organizations and charities as the way to make a difference.

Only about 20% of those surveyed reported trusting the federal government to do what is right most of the time, with 42% seeing the government as an advocate and 38% seeing it as an adversary for them and their families.  On that matter, there is a strong partisan split, with Democrats seeing government as an advocate and Republicans seeing it as an adversary.

So how does Florida stack up to other states relative to charitable activities and volunteerism?

Florida ranks fairly high in terms of charitable giving, coming it at #19 in terms of per capita donations and #4 in terms of overall donations. In 2008, Floridians donated more than $7.4 billion worth of charitable contributions, with the typical resident donating about 4.6% of discretionary income.  In this study, the eight states whose residents gave the largest share to charity voted for McCain that year while the seven lowest-ranking states supported Obama — perhaps highlighting the assumption that Democrats feel it is government’s role to provide for people while Republicans may be more likely to take those matters into their own hands.

Yet Florida doesn’t fare so well on the volunteerism front, ranking #45 out of 50 in terms of overall activity.  About 22.9% of Floridians volunteered in 2011, providing 30.8 volunteer hours per resident.  This accounted for 458.7 million hours of service with a value of $10 billion in service.

Florida’s volunteerism rates have been about the same since 1974.  Florida’s most popular venues for charitable activity are religious institutions (36%), educational (24%), health (10%) and social services (13%). Civic organizations represent about 6%.

Volunteerism is most prevalent among those ages 45-54 (25.3%) followed by those in high school, ages 16-19 (23.8%). While Florida’s seniors ages 65+ have a lower rate of volunteerism (16-19%), those seniors who do volunteer spend more hours doing so (100+) compared with any other age group.  

33% of Floridians discuss politics with friends frequently, and 30% do so infrequently; while nationally, 29% of friends talk politics frequently while 44% abstain.

One-third of Floridians vote often in local elections, and one-third never do — consistent with national averages. About 9% share their political or community opinions via internet, which is slightly higher than the national average of 8%.

13% of Floridians trust all of the people in their neighborhood, 38% trust most of the people, another 38% trust some of the people, and 11% trust nobody in their neighborhood.  That said, 47% of Floridians talk with their neighbors frequently, while 30% do so infrequently.  This is greater than the national averages of 44% and 43% respectively. About 15% of Floridians do regular favors for neighbors.

Only 3% of Floridians express a great deal of confidence in the media, 56% have some confidence, 28% have hardly any confidence, and 12% have no confidence. Nationally, 10% of people have “no confidence” in the media.

10% of Floridians have contacted or visited a public official, and 11% have bought or boycotted a product or service for political reasons.

Back to Monday’s USA TODAY poll: it found something that anecdotally is obvious: people who are most suspicious of government are the most likely to have considered running for office.  Specifically, those who say that they never trust the government to do what is right are about double as likely to have considered running than those who trust the government most or all of the time.

Overall, about 14% of those surveyed have seriously considered running for office. About 25% of those who earn at least $100,000 a year have thought about running for office, but just 10% of those who earn less than $50,000. Men are more likely to have considered public office (22%), compared to women (8%), and whites are more likely to do so (17%) than African Americans (8%).

Those age 30 and older dismiss a run for office on the basis that it is too time consuming, while those younger than 30 cite that politics is too vicious and nasty.

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy consultant, researcher, and mother to three daughters.