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No Time for Volunteering? 4 Policies that Can Help

To truly encourage widespread volunteerism, we’d need to make sure that everyone (not just the well-to-do) have the time to do it.

This article originally appeared in the author's book, How to Design Our World for Happiness.

Student volunteers with Habitat for Humanity.

Students at University of the Pacific volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Photo by Patrick Giblin / Flickr.

Politicians and activists devoted to deep slashes in government spending have an easy answer when asked what happens to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on public programs. They point to volunteerism—the tradition of people taking care of each other, which has sustained human civilization for millennia.

It’s an attractive idea, which evokes the spirit of the commons. Volunteers working largely outside the realm of government—neighborhood organizations, local fire brigades, blood banks, and other civic initiatives—are obvious examples of commons-based sharing and caring.

Walljasper book cover.This article is adapted from Jay Walljasper's book, How to Design Our World for Happiness. Download the full pdf for free!

Theoretically you could picture a society based upon strong incentives for everyday citizens to provide the services now provided by federal, state, and local governments—everything from police protection to the Public Health Service. To actually create such a society, however, would mean some sweeping changes to current economic and social policies.

To truly encourage widespread volunteerism, we’d need to make sure that everyone (not just the well-to-do) have the time to do it. Most people today are working longer hours for less pay and are frantic just to get through the day. Finding extra time in their crunched schedules to manage upkeep at the local park or take care of elderly neighbors looks impossible.

Here are four ways we could create a strong society based on America’s great tradition of volunteerism.

  • Dramatically expanded vacation time and family-leave benefits, and the institution of a four-day workweek—along with stringent enforcement of overtime provisions for all people working more than 40 hours a week.
  • A return to the days of the family wage—the period before the 1970s when a middle-class household could get by on one worker’s wages. And unlike those days, minorities and low-wage workers would not be excluded from this social contract. Since we live in a different era now, it’s likely that many couples today would elect to both work half time. But any way you want to do it, this would trigger a volcanic eruption of volunteers.
  • A universal national health care system that goes beyond the insurance reforms of Obamacare.
  • Most important of all would be a major boost in the minimum wage so that Americans at all rungs of the social ladder would not need to devote all their time and energy to paid work.

These kind of pro-volunteer, pro-commons policies also depend on government playing an important role: Enforcing vacation, family leave, work hours and minimum wage laws, as well as making sure everyone receives adequate health care coverage. Volunteers will not magically appear without positive measures to ensure that all people have time for the common good.


Jay WalljasperJay Walljasper wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jay is a senior fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org.

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