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Economy Low, But ‘Generosity High’

More Americans became engaged in their communities last year as the economy weakened, a federal agency reports today.

"There's a compassion boom going on," says Robert Grimm of the Corporation for National & Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and other service programs.

"Instead of people worrying about their own problems," he says, "they're thinking of others."

The number of volunteers increased 2% from 60.8 million in 2007 to 61.8 million in 2008, according to the agency's 2009 Volunteering In America report, based on annual Census Bureau surveys. Among young adults (16 to 24), the number of volunteers increased 5.7%. On average, 26% of Americans continued to donate their time.

The findings contrast with data from the Giving USA Foundation showing a decline in charitable giving for the first time since 1987.

Two forms of volunteerism jumped sharply: the number of people who worked with neighbors to solve a local problem rose 31% from 2007 to 2008, and the number of people who attended community meetings rose 17% last year.

"This report suggests that Americans are responding to the hardship around them by reaching out in service to others, giving their time when they cannot give their money," first lady Michelle Obama said in a statement.

More non-profit groups rely on volunteers as 80% report significant economic stress, according to a Johns Hopkins University survey.

Grimm says volunteering helps people develop skills and feel valuable.

In Tucson, Peter Norback, 67, was alarmed that his local food bank was struggling. He asked neighbors to donate one can of food a week. In the first six months, he collected enough food to feed 1,131 people three meals a day.

In Dayton, Ohio, Nick Maloney, 28, began volunteering with the Suicide Prevention Center after he was laid off. After going back to work, he continues to speak at schools.

"It's something dear to my heart," he says. He lost two siblings to suicide.

Volunteering tends to be highest in midsize cities, particularly in the Midwest.

"We're at the beginning of a generosity high, a sense that we can make a difference," says Claire Gaudiani, historian of philanthropy at New York University.

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