I am an optimist. I believe that America's best days are still to come and today's children will live a life far better than their parents and grandparents.
The vast majority of Americans are more pessimistic, and it's easy to understand why. Looking at the behavior and performance of our political leaders, there's little reason for hope.
That's why I look in places like Johnstown, Penn., rather than Washington, D.C. Last week, I spoke in Johnstown at the Chamber of Commerce annual dinner. I met many good hardworking people who devote a lot of time, energy, money and talent to making their community a better place to live and work. There were business leaders, a university president, heads of civic organizations, community volunteers, some local politicians and more.
These good people roll up their sleeves and get things done ... and they're not alone. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, there are 65 million Americans who volunteer their time through a civic organization. All told, they contributed just less than 8 billion hours last year, time worth an estimated $175 billion dollars.
The largest number volunteered through churches and other religious organizations (34 percent), with another large group through schools and educational programs (26 percent).
Volunteer activity can be found improving communities in all demographic groups. The highest level of engagement is among those ages 35-44, followed closely by those 45-54. But a third of the nation's volunteers are under 35, and another third are over 55.
There are only modest differences along racial lines, and women are a bit more likely than men to volunteer. People who live in urban areas are somewhat less likely than those in rural and suburban areas to volunteer, but the differences are small.
There are some geographic differences with places in the middle of the country generally enjoying higher levels of volunteer activity. But the big story is that volunteering to solve problems is a truly all-American activity. It can be found in every nook and cranny of the nation, among all segments of society.
People who volunteer are also generous with their wallets. They are twice as likely to donate to charities as other Americans.
The people I met in Johnstown, and the 65 million other volunteers around the country, fill me with hope, because they are addressing the real needs of our society and solving real problems. Many of them, however, don't share my hope for a simple reason. They are so busy solving one problem after another, they don't recognize that they are shaping and saving the nation at the same time.
In America, change always begins in the popular culture and society. Politics and politicians always lag a decade or two behind. That was true at the founding of our nation when the colonies thought of themselves as independent for decades before the Revolution. It was also true for the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and other great shifts in American history.
That's why I see a bright future for our country. I recognize that there are 535 reasons in Congress to be pessimistic. More importantly, though, in Johnstown and other communities throughout the land, there are 65 million reasons for optimism.