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Civic health, engagement, and…the economy?

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

In yesterday’s USA Today, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (now chair of iCivics) and former Florida governor-turned-U.S. Senator Bob Graham penned an op-ed in which they discussed recent findings that show a positive correlation between civic engagement and low (comparative) changes in unemployment.

The study, released last month by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), combined eight commonly used economic factors with five civic engagement measures to predict unemployment since 2006. When using just the traditionally used economic factors, the researchers could explain about 38 percent of the variation in the change in unemployment rates among different states, but when the civic engagement measures (volunteering, attending public meetings, working with neighbors to address community problems, registering to vote, and voting) were added, the model explained 68 percent of the variation in unemployment change.

As O’Connor and Graham explain,

Such trends are borne out at the state level. Eight of the 11 states with the highest volunteering rates at the outset of the financial crisis–Alaska, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota and Vermont–experienced among the smallest rises in unemployment. Seven of the 10 states with the lowest volunteering rates–Arizona, California, Alabama, Florida, Nevada, Rhode Island and Delaware–experienced among the highest increases in unemployment.

Using these results, the two authors conclude: “For the sake of our democracy and our economy, it is time for America to reinvest in civics. The connection between civic learning and economic success begins early in life, but civics has all but vanished from the public school curriculum…The secret to America’s success is the strength of our civil society. An informed citizenry lays the foundation for not just democracy but also for an innovative, dynamic economy.”

Another leader working to this end is David Feith, whose recent compilation Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education we have profiled before (and which includes contributions by both Justice O’Connor and Senator Graham). Tevi Troy has a good interview of Feith over at New Books in Public Policy, which is very much worth listening to. The interview can be found here.