The Nation’s Civic Health? Could Be Better, Could Be Worse

November 11, 2010

“The best boost for our nation’s civic health is to ensure all children graduate from high school and complete college,” according to the 2010 Civic Health Assessment. Educational attainment is the greatest predictor of future civic engagement, this National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) report finds.

With that, this annual survey becomes yet another argument for addressing the nation’s disturbing college dropout rate, about which I recently blogged. The survey calls on philanthropists and others to help foster a culture of college completion, not just access, as well as push for a stronger focus on teaching American history and civic learning, to help boost civic appreciation.

This is the fifth such survey measuring Americans’ civic habits across a wide range of indicators, but the first since the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act called for expanding the work. The now-federal assessment is produced by the NCoC in partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service and the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of the survey’s statistics, covering the years 2008 and 2009, are being published for the first time, as they stem from the Census Bureau’s Civic Engagement Supplement, added to the bureau’s Current Population Survey in 2008. They’ve also developed a website, providing state and local statistics, to help community leaders better understand their community’s service and engagement activities

Among the survey’s key findings: The country’s multiracial citizens were the most politically active in 2008, though African Americans led the way in voting and whites or Caucasians led in group membership and volunteering . Meanwhile, while the overall volunteer rate is lower than it was immediately after 9/11, the years 2008 and 2009 saw the largest increase since 2003. And Millennials (aged 16 to 30) are volunteering at higher rates than Boomers did at the same age.

Perhaps most notably, the survey suggests that the Internet builds civic health. While acknowledging that more metrics of “eCitizenship” need to be developed to assess its full impact, early indicators suggest that those who go online on a regular basis are more likely to be involved in offline communities as well. The report says ensuring access to broadband-quality Internet connections should therefore be a high priority.

A related issue brief released jointly with the Corporation for National and Community Service calls on philanthropists, among others, to help support efforts to develop and collect new measures of civic engagement that broaden our understanding of the term and more accurately capture the full range of participation — including metrics associated with social innovation, online engagement, corporate citizenship, social capital and public service.

The survey already defines civic engagement broadly, even including less-formal activities, such as talking about politics with family members, exchanging favors with neighbors and engaging in online activities that allow people to stay connected to each other. “If we continue to consider service as only those activities done through formal organizations or programs,” according to the issue brief, “we miss the opportunity to promote and support the many other powerful ways Americans get involved.” For example, eating dinner with other members of the household can help jumpstart people’s interest in engaging in their communities in other ways after hearing stories of service or group participation.

Maybe so. The world, and the way people engage with it, is changing, and so certainly, measurement needs to reflect that. The question is, do these social interactions that may have been seen as routine, and even taken for granted, lead to more formal activities, such as voting and volunteering?  It’ll be interesting to watch for changes in the survey’s baseline data as the years go by. Interesting – and important.


Jane Wales
President & Co-Founder, Global Philanthropy Forum


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