Childhood volunteering encourages those from politically disengaged homes to go on and vote when they are older, a major new study shows.
Community action leads to them becoming more interested in politics and to see voting as a duty, according to the research.
However volunteering didn’t have the same impact for most children, so it shouldn’t be seen as the answer to falling voter numbers.
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 the 2015, 2017 and 2019 UK general elections.
Dr 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 reflects 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 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.”
Dr 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, 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 per cent who didn’t volunteer in the year before their first election said that they were ‘certain to vote’, compared with 56 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent had no political interest in childhood, and by the time of their first election this was still the case for 36 per cent while 33 per cent did not feel that voting was a duty; almost four fifths did not volunteer. Among the children of engaged parents, only 26 per cent had no interest in politics in childhood, and by the time of their first election this was 22 per cent, with 19 per cent not seeing voting as a duty. Almost a third reported volunteering.
Of those who did not volunteer, 10 per cent were ‘certain not to vote’ in their first election and 46 per cent were ‘certain to vote’; of those who volunteered at least once a week, the figures were 5 per cent and 61 per cent respectively. Similarly, of those who did not volunteer, 28 per cent had no interest in politics by their first election, and 28 per cent disagreed voting was a duty. Among those who volunteered at least once a week, the figures were 20 and 24 per cent respectively.
Attitudes about political interest and duty both had strong and significant effects on vote likelihood, while volunteering had a very weak, positive effect on feelings about duty to vote and a negligible effect on political interest.
For children from disengaged households, the total effect of volunteering on vote likelihood was 0.48 – for every increase in the frequency of volunteering, the likelihood of voting increased by 0.48 points. For children from engaged households, the total effect was 0.09.