“Those who can’t find work, volunteer.” That was a popular idea during the height of the recession, but Vocativ has learned that the number of people applying to serve as volunteers in the Peace Corps is down 35 percent from 2009 and is now the lowest in a decade.
As the national unemployment rate hit a record high after the real estate market crash, so did the number of applications to the Peace Corps. 24 months in Tonga? No problem. Build a library in Burkina Faso? Why not. While college seniors scrambled to compete for few entry level jobs, the once for-hippies-only, life-postponing volunteer program offered an alternative stepping stone to adult life.
However, that is no longer the case, according to data on applicants and enrolled volunteers which Vocativ obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government.
Since seeing a record number of applications in 2009, the number of applicants to the competitive federal volunteer program have declined steadily from a high of 15,384 in 2009 to 10,091 in 2012–which is about 20 percent shy of the number of applications received in 2007, before the recession.
“Young people are now less likely to look to the Peace Corps for an alternative employment opportunity than they were before the recession,” says Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, a public policy organization in New York.
The job market is either picking up for college grads or today’s generation of heavily indebted degree holders–80 percent of Corps volunteers are college grads– can’t afford to postpone earning a wage, according to Ruetschlin.
“Does the economy affect the number of applications? I think we see that it does,” says Elizabeth Chamberlain at the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office.
“But it’s not as big a factor as you might think…[the Peace Corps] is not a quick-fix for someone who’s looking for a job,” says Chamberlain. The Peace Corps is a 27-month commitment and many people have to gain additional work or volunteer experience to even qualify for projects involving healthcare or agriculture, according to Chamberlain.
While the Peace Corps does not publish its application numbers or an acceptance rate, records obtained by Vocativ show that roughly one-third of applicants each year go on to serve and the number of people entering the corps has stayed relatively stable.
As the young presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said to a crowd of students at University of Michigan in October 1960: “How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers–how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” The answer may be fewer.