Public Release: 

Diadvantaged youth less likely to volunteer as teens, study finds

Ohio State University

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Children who grow up in poverty and in single-parent homes are less likely to volunteer as adolescents, a new study suggests.

However, some factors, such as involvement in school and church groups, seem to be routes by which disadvantaged children learn prosocial behaviors such as volunteering.

The research is important because most studies of disadvantaged youth focus on their negative behaviors, such as delinquency and early childbearing, said Daniel Lichter, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"The concern is whether disadvantaged youth, such as those who live in poverty, become socially responsible and civic-minded young people," Lichter said. "While there has been plenty of research about negative activities among disadvantaged youth, we need to learn more about positive behaviors and how to promote them."

The results of this study, while preliminary, show that growing up disadvantaged may harm the development of prosocial behaviors such as volunteerism, but there are ways to overcome these obstacles, Lichter said.

Lichter conducted the study with Michael Shanahan of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Erica Gardner of Pennsylvania State University. The results were published in a recent issue of the journal Youth & Society.

The researchers used data from the 1996 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The study included responses from 1,106 teenagers ranging in age from 14 to 18 and who were still in high school. The sample focused on at-risk young people born during the late 1970s to mothers who were disproportionately young, unmarried and poor.

Included in the survey were questions about volunteer work that the students had done.

The results showed that almost one-third of both boys and girls (31 percent of both groups) had engaged in some volunteer work in the past two years. About one-quarter said their activities were purely voluntary - not mandated by schools or other organizations.

A 1995 study that included a broader range of teenagers from across the country reported that 70 percent of high school seniors had participated in community affairs or volunteer work in the past year.

Most of the teens in the new study who did volunteer work did it through faith-based institutions and organizations that serve children and young people (such as Big Brother or Big Sister). Relatively few volunteered for civic organizations, such as community centers or nursing homes. Even fewer volunteered for political organizations.

Results clearly showed that children who lived in poverty and in single-parent homes were less likely than others to spend time volunteering, Lichter said. These children may have too many difficulties in their own lives to devote time to helping others or may have become socially disaffected as a result of the hardships while growing up.

But other problems faced by disadvantaged adolescents in this survey did not affect their level of volunteering. "Children of teen parents and unstable households were just as likely as other children to engage in volunteer activities as they matured into late adolescence," Lichter said. "It may be that some of the problems they faced in their lives sensitized them to the pain of others and increased the likelihood of volunteerism."

Other factors in the lives of teens can counteract the negative effects of poverty and other disadvantages in promoting prosocial behaviors. For example, the study found that religious activity played a significant role in developing an involvement in the community. The problem is that, especially for boys in the study, early disadvantages in life are linked to lower church attendance during adolescence.

Our results point to the importance of schools and churches for providing a pathway for young adults to volunteer," Lichter said. Because of the nature of the data, Lichter said they could not examine prosocial behavior outside of volunteering, such as giving to charity or helping care for others in the community. "Young adults with disadvantaged backgrounds may be expressing positive values in ways that we couldn't capture from this data," he said.

However, this study provided a starting point to examine how growing up disadvantaged may influence prosocial behavior among adolescents, Lichter said.

The study was supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Russell Sage Foundation.


Contact: Daniel Lichter, (614) 688-3476;
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

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