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Study Reveals Lower Volunteering in Diverse US States – Trust Key Factor

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In a new study, research analysing the 50 American states revealed a consistent association between higher state racial-ethnic diversity (RED) and lower formal volunteering (FV) rates.

The study, published in Psychreg Journal of Psychology, offers a comprehensive examination of this relationship across various demographics, including gender, marital status, and age groups.

The research delved into the volunteering patterns within the US, where in 2015, approximately 24.9% of adults engaged in FV, contributing an estimated 7.8 billion hours of service. Notably, there was a significant variation in FV rates across states, ranging from 39.3% in Utah to a low of 18.3% in Florida.

The study focused on the potential influence of RED as a factor in these disparities. Using state-level data, the research found that higher levels of RED were consistently associated with lower FV rates across all demographic subgroups. This pattern persisted even after accounting for various statistical controls such as socioeconomic status, neuroticism, religiosity, and unemployment rates.

Stewart McCann, Professor Emeritus at Cape Breton University, shared insights into his motivation for the study: “Much of my research in recent years has been on psychological factors with the American states as the analytic units. I have had over 35 publications in this area of interest since 2008.

“My article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2017 was the first to link higher state resident neuroticism to lower state volunteer rates. Reading the 2000 and 2007 works of Putnam led me to speculate that racial-ethnic diversity and lower trust in others also might be important predictors of American state volunteering rates.”

A crucial aspect of the study was the role of trust, particularly the trust of neighbours, in mediating the relationship between RED and FV rates. The research posited that trust fostered in areas of heightened homophily (the tendency to associate with similar others) is the operative factor underlying the RED-FV relationship. This finding aligns with previous research that has linked lower levels of trust to increased RED.

McCann further elaborated on his key findings: “The present study found that higher racial-ethnic diversity and lower trust of others were substantially associated with lower state volunteering rates. However, when I controlled for trust in a multiple regression framework, racial-ethnic diversity was eliminated as a predictor, largely because racial-ethnic diversity and trust had a high negative Pearson correlation. This is a correlation-based, cross-sectional study. Therefore, it warrants no causal inference based on the results. Nevertheless, it is speculated that heightened racial-ethnic diversity promotes higher levels of distrust.”

The analysis indicated that controlling for the trust of neighbours could fully account for the link between RED and all 15 types of state FV rates tested, suggesting that higher trust in more homogenous communities leads to greater engagement in FV activities.

These findings have significant implications for understanding and enhancing FV in the context of increasing ethnic diversity. The study suggests that generic campaigns to encourage FV might have limited success in more diverse areas, given different attitudes and motivations towards volunteering among various racial-ethnic groups.

From an applied perspective, the results imply that FV recruitment strategies should consider the broader RED context and focus on fostering interpersonal trust, especially in more diverse states. This approach could potentially lead to higher levels of volunteering across all racial and ethnic subpopulations.

McCann also shared his future plans: “I am currently nearing the completion of a cross-cultural study that tests the generalisation of the present results using more recent American state data and comparable data based on 316 local authority districts (LADs) in England. However, there are many opportunities for researchers to contribute to the knowledge base surrounding the association between higher racial-ethnic diversity and lower trust in others.”

The study acknowledges certain limitations, such as the operational definitions of state RED and the cross-sectional nature of the data, which preclude causal inferences. Additionally, the research is based on data centred around 2003–2005, and although supplementary analysis with more recent data showed similar patterns, the rapidly changing demographics and social dynamics necessitate ongoing research.

Future research is encouraged to further explore the individual-level relationships underlying the state-level patterns observed. Investigating the role of specific racial-ethnic differences in volunteering rates and trust, and employing experimental and longitudinal studies to confirm the potential causal pathways, are identified as potential avenues for further study.

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