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Checkbooks in the Heartland: Change over Time in Voluntary Association Membership


  • The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the Mershon Center at Ohio State University. For their thoughtful comments and time spent reviewing this paper, we thank Jennifer Glanville and Jonathan Vespa.


Numerous scholars documented declines in America's social capital through the mid-1990s but we do not know whether the trend has continued. Further, despite warnings by Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol that the quality of Americans' voluntary association memberships has also deteriorated—moving from active, “face-to-face” memberships to passive, “checkbook” memberships—data have not been available to test this claim. In this article, we use both the Iowa Community Survey and the General Social Survey to explore the changing nature of voluntary association membership between 1994 and 2004. We demonstrate that not only are declines in voluntary association memberships continuing in the new century but there has been a shift in the intensity of voluntary association participation over time. We observe a decline in active membership over time and an increase in checkbook membership over time. These findings provide support for Putnam's claim that checkbook membership is increasing at the expense of more active types of memberships.

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