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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: Strengthening the Economy through Civic Engagement

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.

When he visited America in 1831, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed with the way Americans from all walks of life gathered together in associations. Tocqueville declared in Democracy in America that these associations were indispensable to a functional democracy and that the knowledge of how to work together was the “mother of all forms of knowledge” in a democratic country.

We have long known that civic engagement strengthens democratic systems. The question this blog post addresses is: does civic engagement strengthen the economy? A recent report authored by several partner organizations, including the National Conference on Citizenship, CIRCLE, Civic Enterprises, the Saguaro Seminar, and the National Constitution Center suggests that there may be a correlation between civic engagement and the unemployment rate.

This report, called a “partner paper,” examines how different states have weathered the economic recession from 2006 to 2010. The paper investigates the effect of civic engagement indicators on economic indicators to explore if and where civic engagement strengthened local economies.

The partner paper defines civic health as “the measure of the civic attitudes, actions, and behaviors of a group of individuals” (p.3). The claim that communities with strong civic engagement by residents are resilient and can weather challenges is not new. The partner paper specifically suggests that where civic engagement, social capital, and trust are not declining, employment is stronger. Most jobs for paid employment are secured through personal connections, which can often stem from community work, volunteer engagement, and service programs.

The partner paper notes that civic engagement and volunteering has declined nationally between 2006 and 2010; however, in states and cities were civic engagement did not decline, communities were more economically resilient. Data were taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS) of 50,000 households, which looked at the following measures to examine how communities weathered the recession.

The civic engagement factors considered:

  • Volunteering
  • Attending public meetings
  • Working with neighbors to address community problems
  • Registering to vote
  • Voting

The economic factors considered:

  • Education: the proportion of population with high school degrees
  • Energy: the size of the oil and gas industry
  • Service and technology jobs: the proportion of the population who held professional positions (accountants, architects, lawyers, or high-end business and technology positions)
  • The Housing Bubble: States which residents had a large portion of subprime or adjustable rate mortgages

The partner paper found:

  • There is a decrease in a state’s unemployment rate when neighbors worked with each other to solve community problems.
  • There is a reduction in unemployment when there was greater attendance at community meetings.
  • There is a decrease in unemployment when there is an increase in volunteering.
  • There is a slight decrease in unemployment when there is an increase in voter registration.

Civic engagement provides community actors with a toolbox to better weather the recession. These tools include skill development through volunteering, a sense of personal confidence, finding employment through social networks, information gained through participation, a trust in and willingness to help others, stronger government, and importantly, community attachment.

States with the highest volunteering rate in 2006 also had the smallest unemployment increase from 2006 to 2010. These states are Alaska, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, and Vermont. Cities with high volunteering rates in 2006 which were correlated to low unemployment increases are Austin, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Pittsburg, Columbus, and Denver. None of these cities are located in the states where there was overall higher rates of volunteering, except for Minnesota.

The paper notes that even though the metropolitan data are preliminary, a pattern emerged where cities with higher rates of civic engagement had lower rates of unemployment. States with the lowest volunteering rate in 2006 correlated to the highest increase in unemployment. These states are Arizona, California, Alabama, Florida, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Delaware.

The paper importantly notes that correlations found in the research are preliminary. Civic Engagement factors have only recently been included in the Current Population Survey; therefore, it was also possible to suggest that higher rates of unemployment have led to more civic engagement. A key component of this paper is trust. Communities whose members trust one another, are engaged and attached to community, and who can easily gain information through networks might be more likely to attract investors for economic development.

The paper suggests that it is quite possible that civic engagement contributes to reduced rates of employment in our nation, among other factors. These findings certainly need to — and will be — further explored and researched. In the meantime, we can ask ourselves, what individual actions should we as community members take to make a difference in our community? As ASU Lodestar Center-affiliated Professor Mark Hager, asks, do you know the name of ten of your neighbors?

The message from this partner paper is to get to know your neighbor and trust him or her to work with you to address important community needs. Join in and make a difference in your community!

Patsy Kraeger received her doctorate from the ASU School of Public Affairs in May of 2011. She also received a graduate certificate in nonprofit leadership and management from the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation.


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