Could Civic Engagement Be the Key to Economic Success?

Since 2006, unemployment has risen by 10 points in Nevada but just one point in North Dakota. Such differences matter deeply for people's lives, and we need to understand the underlying reasons.
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Since 2006, unemployment has risen by 10 points in Nevada but just one point in North Dakota. Such differences matter deeply for people's lives, and we need to understand the underlying reasons.

The obvious place to look is economic conditions. A Goldman Sachs study in August found that the only factors that mattered were the extent of the housing bubble (more was worse), the size of the state's oil and gas industry (more was better), and the proportion of its workforce in high-skilled professional jobs (higher was better).

My colleagues and I are concerned about civic engagement: voting, volunteering, belonging to and leading groups, attending meetings, and working with fellow citizens to address problems. Those activities are now measured annually by the federal Current Population Survey. So we included them in a statistical model along with major eight economic factors to see what explained changes in unemployment best.

We found that the civic measures were strongly related to changes in employment from 2006-2010, but none of the economic factors was associated with employment to a statistically significant degree. Please see Civic Health and Unemployment: Can Engagement Strengthen the Economy, released today by CIRCLE at Tufts University, the National Conference on Citizenship, the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard, Civic Enterprises, and the National Constitution Center.

In short, the more civic engagement, the less unemployment. Particularly valuable forms of engagement seemed to include volunteering, working with neighbors, group membership, meeting attendance, registering to vote, serving as a group officer, and contacting public officials.

The main focus in the report is on states, but more limited evidence from metropolitan areas finds the same patterns at that level as well.

The report carefully notes that we cannot tell for sure whether civic engagement lowers unemployment; other explanations are explored. However, the statistical relationships are notably strong and deserve much more attention by economists, policymakers, and the public.

The statistical analysis itself cannot explain why civic engagement may be an important factor in avoiding unemployment, but other research lends support for several hypotheses:

  • Participation in civil society can develop skills, confidence, and habits that make individuals employable and strengthen the networks that help them to find jobs
  • People get jobs through social networks (online and offline)
  • Participation in civil society spreads information relevant to investors and workers
  • Participation in civil society is strongly correlated with trust in other people, and people who trust others are more likely to invest and hire
  • Communities and political jurisdictions with stronger civil societies are more likely to have good governments
  • Civic engagement can encourage people to feel attached to their communities

As the report concludes:

Even at a time when the global economy has been buffeted by strong and dangerous forces, all communities have capital and skills that can be deployed to create or preserve jobs. Investors may be more willing to create jobs locally if they trust other people and the local government, if they feel attached to their community, if they know about opportunities and can disseminate information efficiently, and if they feel that the local workforce is skilled. All these factors correlate with civic engagement. Those correlations, plus the other evidence cited in this report, lend some plausibility to the thesis that civic health matters for economic resilience.

If we want to boost civic engagement at the state and local level, many strategies are worth considering -- from funding nonprofits to reforming election laws. But civic education at the k-12 level should certainly be part of the strategy, and that was the topic of another major report released this week: Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools.

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