Our Will to Give Is Recession-Proof

Despite hard economic times, African-American volunteerism is outpacing that of other groups -- and all groups are giving more.

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This article was updated on January 17.

Being hit the hardest by one of the worst economic recessions in decades has not dampened the giving spirit of African Americans.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 5.7 million black Americans did volunteer work in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available), up 400,000 from 5.3 million who did so in 2008, with an especially high jump in the rate of volunteerism (now at one in five African Americans) than other groups. What's more, black Americans churned out 792 million hours of volunteer work, which economists estimate is worth about $16.5 billion, the CNCS reports.  

Better yet, overall, Americans were more giving of their time, with 63.4 million Americans volunteering in 2009, up 1.6 million from the previous year -- the largest increase since 2003.

These figures on volunteerism were shared Friday at a White House press briefing about the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, which is also known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. President Barack Obama, the first lady and other administration officials will mark the 25th anniversary of the holiday by volunteering themselves. It's part of an ongoing call by the administration to encourage more volunteering, especially as the economy recovers.

"We believe that Dr. King's spirit of service is alive and well today in all of us," Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told reporters in a conference call on Friday. Barnes will take part in numerous service projects, including joining George Washington University students to tidy up five D.C. public schools.

President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters are contributing their time to a service project encouraging healthy eating at Stuart Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C., while Vice President Joe Biden and wife, Jill, will be in Wilmington, Del., to honor King's day. Other members who will be out doing their part include Secretaries Arne Duncan, Kathleen Sebelius, Ray LaHood, Steven Chu and Eric Shinseki, as well as Attorney General Eric Holder and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

"I encourage every American to observe this holiday in honor of Dr. King's selfless legacy by volunteering in their own communities and by dedicating time each day to bettering the lives of those around us," President Obama said in a statement.

Congress selected the King holiday as a federal day of service in 1994 as a way to commemorate the civil rights leader's stance on nonviolence and social justice. In 2009 a record number of people turned out to celebrate Dr. King's memory by serving on 13,000 projects.

Let's hope that in 2011, the nation can top that record.

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