Racial differences in volunteer engagement by older adults: an empowerment perspective.

Author:Tang, Fengyan

Older Americans are increasingly engaged in volunteering to organizations. The volunteering rates for adults ages 65 and over showed a upward trend in the past three decades, rising from 14.3% in 1974 to 24.6% in 2008 (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2006; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). As the first of the Baby Boomer generation has turned 60, there will be a large pool of potential older adult volunteers owing to the unprecedented size of this generation (Einolf, 2009). The aging Baby Boomers also encompass increased racial and ethnic and cultural diversification. For example, 8.3% of older adults were black in 2008; this proportion increases to 11.6% among Baby Boomers (Administration on Aging, 2009).

Volunteering is viewed as an empowerment process whereby older adults are actively engaged in the community and improve their psychosocial and physical well-being (Cheung & Kwan, 2006; Kam, 2002). Moreover, volunteering generates a host of benefits that accrue to the recipients of volunteer services, to the community in which volunteers serve, and to the social service sector that has come to rely increasingly on volunteers.

The value of volunteering and the extent of racial and ethnic diversity call for greater scholarly attention to the volunteer behavior of various ethnic groups (Sundeen, Garcia, & Raskoff, 2009).

The research on racial and ethnic difference in volunteering is very limited, and the findings are controversial (Fischer & Schaffer, 1993; Hinterlong, 2006; Sundeen et al., 2009). Some data show that white people have substantially higher rates of volunteering than other ethnic groups, whereas others find no difference or even the reverse of the trend (Fischer & Schaffer, 1993). Using the National Survey of Families and Households data, Miner and Tolnay (1998) examined the racial difference and race-related crossover effect on volunteer participation in different types of organizations. Findings showed that young cohorts of black people and white people had similar rates of voluntary organization participation, whereas older black people had lower rates of participation than their white counterparts in social service and job-related organizations, except in neighborhood groups, especially church groups that have historically been open to black people (Miner & Tolnay, 1998). By contrast, Hinterlong (2006) documented that white older adults volunteered to organizations at significantly higher rates than their black peers consistently across three waves of data collection through longitudinal analyses of nationally representative data from the Americans' Changing Lives surveys (see http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/ICPSR/studies/04690).

The relevance of race to volunteering may be linked with life quality indicators that make volunteering possible--for example, education and income. Despite recent gains in educational and occupational achievements, black people "are still worse off than [white people] across a broad range of quality-of-life indicators" (Musick, Wilson, & Bynum, 2000, p. 1539). Cumulative disadvantages over the life course, including racial discrimination, have created unequal access to volunteer roles for black people and white people (Dannefer, 2003), which may explain why black people are less likely to volunteer. Racial difference in volunteering rates is even more apparent in the older population (Miner & Tolnay, 1998), probably because older black people have historically experienced more socioeconomic and political marginalization and have restricted access to certain type of volunteer organizations. The inequalities embedded in social structures of race and social class differentiate individuals and their aging experience (Dannefer, 2003), and these dynamics likely are reflected in volunteer engagement. Yet exclusion from volunteering threatens to further marginalize older black people by denying them opportunities of community participation, access to potential benefits of volunteering, and chances of contribution to the society.

Although they are less likely to volunteer to organizations, older black people tend to provide care to their fanny members and display high levels of participation in informal volunteering and church volunteering (Fischer & Schaffer, 1993; Hinterlong, 2006). Because of the black community's extended family tradition of kinship and caregiving ties, grandparents or other older relatives frequently assume children's care when the parents cannot. Yet these family caregiving responsibilities have not typically been recognized as a form of volunteerism, although a crucial generational resource for the black community. In addition, older black people attend churches more frequently, with higher rates of church membership than younger cohorts (Taylor & Chatters, 1991). Church attendance has more powerful effects on black volunteering than on white volunteering, indicating that older black church attendees are more likely to volunteer for the church as well as for secular organizations (Musick et al., 2000).


An empowerment perspective has been proposed to understand volunteerism as a vital means of health maintenance among older adults (Kam, 2002). Empowerment is defined as "processes whereby individuals achieve increasing control of various aspects of their lives and participate in the community with dignity" (Lord & Hutchison, 1993, p. 7). Volunteering as an empowerment process provides an avenue for older adults, especially the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, to counter loss of power in varied life domains, reduce sense of isolation and helplessness, and strengthen self-esteem and personal control (Kam, 2002; Morrow-Howell, Kinnevy, & Mann, 1999). For example, volunteer participation is likely to mitigate the negative effects of widowhood on personal well-being, facilitate social support and interactions, and bolster self-regulation of health behaviors among widowed elders (Li, 2007). Also the strong health benefits are noted for older adults with scarce personal and social resources, rather than among those with greater amounts of these resources (Musick, Herzog, & House, 1999). In particular, lower-income and less educated older adult volunteers perceived more benefits than their counterparts at higher socioeconomic status (Morrow-Howell, Hong, & Tang, 2009). To summarize, older adult volunteers perceived themselves as capable individuals, willing and able to gain control of their lives and to actively participate and exert influence in the community.


The link between volunteering and positive outcomes has been well documented in the literature. Recent empirical studies report that volunteer engagement in later life is related to better physical functioning (Lum & Lightfoot, 2005), improved self-rated health (Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, P, ozario & Tang, 2003), increased levels of muscular strength (Fried et al., 2004), reduced depressive symptoms (Musick & Wilson, 2003), and reduced mortality (Musick et al., 1999). These studies used longitudinal analyses of nationally representative datasets, including the Americans' Changing Lives and the Health and Retirement studies (see http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu/). With the samples of white people, black people, and other minorities, findings of these studies provided strong support for a significant association between volunteering and health.

Studies on Experience Corps suggest that high-intensity volunteer programs designed as health promotion interventions can lead to sustained improvement in physical activity among high-risk older adults, including black adults, thus helping address racially based health disparities (Fried et al., 2004; Tan et al., 2009). As demonstration programs launched and developed by Civic Ventures, a well-known nonprofit organization, Experience Corps engages adults ages 55 and over as tutors and mentors for public elementary schoolchildren who are struggling to learn. In the Experience Corps at Baltimore, Maryland, about 97% of 70 volunteers were black elders with varying levels of health and functional status. In contrast with the comparison group of 58 elders, with 95% being black elders, the volunteers were more physically active, felt more physical strength, and had smaller declines in walking speed--benefits that were attributed to being a volunteer (Fried et al., 2004; Tan et al. 2009). In addition, formal volunteering participation decreases the negative affect (that is related to poor health, anxiety, and fears) among older black people (McIntosh & Danigelis, 1995). These positive benefits on physical and emotional quality of life may turn into empowerment sources that make older adults further engage in the community and increase control of their personal lives.

Although there is a growing literature on volunteerism in later life, little existing research has explicated racial differences in volunteer experience regarding time commitment, activity type, and the type of organizations involved. Even less is...

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