A major new study reveals that childhood volunteering can have a significant impact on political engagement later in life, particularly for those from politically disengaged homes. The study shows that community action can encourage children to become more interested in politics and view voting as a duty. It is important to note, however, that volunteering did not have the same effect on most children, so it should not be considered a comprehensive solution to address the declining voter turnout. The findings were published in the European Journal of Political Research.
The research was carried out by Dr Stuart Fox, now at the University of Exeter and conducted while he worked at Brunel University. He used the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Survey and structural equation modelling to examine the impact of childhood volunteering on the turnout of newly eligible voters in 2015, 2017 and 2019 UK general elections.
Fox said: “On average, childhood volunteering had little impact on voter turnout because most children who volunteer are likely to vote in adulthood regardless. Their volunteering and then voting just reflect them becoming politically and civically active and their possession of resources that facilitate civic and political participation.
“But for the children of politically disengaged parents, who would otherwise be unlikely to vote because they have fewer opportunities to become politically engaged, volunteering exposes them to political issues and institutions in their community, as well as other more politically engaged individuals, and increases their attachment to that community. This leads to increased interest in politics and a greater propensity to view voting as a civic duty.
“This means childhood volunteering has the potential to help reverse generational turnout decline. But it can only make a limited contribution to reducing inequalities in turnout that have their roots in social factors.”
Fox used data about self-reported interest in politics and measured whether respondents felt voting was a duty if they felt qualified to participate in politics, were informed about politics or that political engagement was too costly. He also controlled for characteristics related to childhood volunteering, voting or both: gender and age and education.
Of those in the study raised by politically engaged parents, 53% who didn’t volunteer in the year before their first election said that they were ‘certain to vote’, compared with 56% who did volunteer – a 3-point “boost” to first-time voter turnout from volunteering. Among those raised in politically disengaged (and typically poorer) households, however, that turnout boost was 25 points, with 31% of those who didn’t volunteer being ‘certain to vote’ compared with 56 per cent who did volunteer.
During their teen years, most had at least some interest in politics and only a third had none. Almost three-quarters had never or almost never volunteered a year later, while 16 per cent did so at least once a week. By the time of their first election, overall political engagement had increased, with the proportion saying they had no interest in politics falling to a quarter and a similar proportion rejecting the view that voting was a duty.
Those from politically disengaged households were less engaged and less likely to volunteer: 45% had no political interest in childhood, and by the time of their first election this was still the case for 36% while 33% did not feel that voting was a duty; almost four-fifths did not volunteer. Among the children of engaged parents, only 26% had no interest in politics in childhood, and by the time of their first election, this was 22%, with 19% not seeing voting as a duty. Almost a third reported volunteering.
Of those who did not volunteer, 10% were ‘certain not to vote’ in their first election and 46% were “certain to vote”; of those who volunteered at least once a week, the figures were 5% and 61% respectively. Similarly, of those who did not volunteer, 28% had no interest in politics by their first election, and 28% disagreed voting was a duty. Among those who volunteered at least once a week, the figures were 20% and 24%, respectively.
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