Voluntary association membership has been a focus of sociological research for many decades. Joining organizations and clubs on a voluntary basis is free or low cost and affords multiple benefits. Much of the research has focused on levels of membership in modern society and the factors that may cause these levels to increase or decrease (Putnam 1995; Inglehart and Baker 1997, ch.4; Dekker and Halman 2003). Differential levels of voluntary association membership may signify differential levels of trust, cooperation, social resources, and other types of engagement that are important to civil society and democracy.
At the end of the 1900s, the rise of economic development brought with it an increase in economic inequality (Nielsen 1994) and low income (Picot and Myles 2005) across industrial countries. Inequality and poverty influence choices that individuals make about the way they spend their time and money and the opportunities they have access to. Joining voluntary organizations requires the free time and flexibility that comes with a certain level of financial security, and locally accessible organizations to join. A lack of community resources and funding may prevent poor neighbourhoods from having as many voluntary organizations as their wealthier counterparts. Individuals living in poor neighbourhoods may feel too socially isolated to want to join an organization. Neighbourhoods with high income inequality may have too much distrust and heterogeneity to support organizations based on shared interests and values. This paper tries to understand how membership levels are influenced by the prevalence of poverty and income inequality in modern Canadian society. For individuals living in poor or unequal neighbourhoods, does having a higher income improve the likelihood of becoming a voluntary association member, or is there just less opportunity to join organizations in these neighbourhoods?
Using data from the Canadian General Social Survey 17 (GSS) from 2003 and census microdata from 2001, (1) this study examines how individual income, neighbourhood poverty, and neighbourhood income inequality affect membership in Canada. Effects will be examined on the probability of membership as well as the volume of membership. As neighbourhood geographic classifications are only available for urban Canada (urban centres with populations over 50,000), the focus is on individuals living in these urban areas. This paper makes some policy recommendations to counter restrictions on membership.
In the exploration of contextual effects on voluntary association membership, previous research has focused on comparative projects examining country level structural contexts or determinants of civic engagement (Schofer and Fourcade-Gourinchas 2001; Baer et al. 2001). The availability of World Values Survey data on membership for different countries has made country comparison of membership popular, although the examination of neighbourhood effects on social outcomes has become increasing popular in recent years. In the US, Swaroop and Morenoff (2006) point to the importance of neighbourhood context when examining social participation but also acknowledge that many US neighbourhood studies have focused on African American neighbourhoods which may represent a special set of characteristics. Despite sharing some social characteristics with the US, urban Canada is home to diverse communities of differing socioeconomic status, racial background, and levels of integration. Yet, no comprehensive examination of the effects of neighbourhood context on voluntary association membership has been carried out in Canada.
Cross-country comparison studies point to the importance of country level economic development as a predictor of engagement (see for example, Woolcock 1998; Hwang et al. 2005; Kaariainen and Lehtonen 2006) but don't consider poverty levels. This may be due, in part, to the lack of easily available and comparable data on country level poverty. …