Tuesday, September 25th, 2012
Writing at The Huffington Post, Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning (CIRCLE), makes the case for presidential candidates and political pundits to take citizenship seriously. He notes that President Obama has often talked about the importance of citizenship, but that too often pundits dismiss “talk of citizenship as a politician’s cliche–like saying you are delighted to be in New Hampshire in January.”
I see two reasons for their lack of interest: pundits doubt that active citizenship has important consequences, and they don’t see its relevance to policy.
Scholars who empirically study the consequences of civic engagement can demonstrate that it has important consequences. For example, my colleagues and I helped write a report released last week by the National Conference on Citizenship that shows that civic engagement affects the unemployment rate. For that report, we investigated the relationship between civic health and unemployment in all 50 states, 942 metro areas, and more than 3,100 counties. We found that communities with more civic engagement in 2006 suffered less from unemployment during and after the Great Recession, even when other possible explanations were factored in.
Nonprofit organizations, driven by volunteers and charitable contributions, played an important role. According to our analysis, if a county had one extra nonprofit for every 1,000 residents in 2005, and everything else were held constant, the county would have half a percentage point less unemployment by 2009. […]
The effects of active citizenship on unemployment are just an example. Engaging as citizens has also been found to benefit people’s psychological well-being and health and to strengthen schools and other organizations.
In short, active citizenship really matters. But what does that mean for policy? The answer was clear during the New Deal, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt framed federal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration as opportunities for ordinary people to help rebuild the American Commonwealth, contributing their ideas and passions as well as their money. […]
President Obama deservedly wins some citizens’ applause for his citizenship theme. Pundits may have underestimated his Charlotte speech because they overlooked the resonance of that idea for people who are discouraged by our fraying civic fabric. But so far, the Obama administration has been much better at talking about citizenship than actually encouraging it. If the president takes concrete steps to boost civic participation, even pundits may start paying attention.