Perfecting Our Union Through Personal Ties

When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they hoped to form a more perfect Union. This Fourth of July it's worth checking up on that goal. Given our position in the world and growing economy, it is easy to agree with every modern president when they've said, "Our Union is strong." In so many ways, this is true. Yet, if we consider that our Union is just a collection of people tied together by similar beliefs and values, then the goal of forming a more perfect Union is refocused.

A strong Union is less about the strength of our armies and bankers. Instead, it relies on the strength of the ties between us. Since 2009, the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) in partnership with the Corporation for National & Community Service and U.S. Census Bureau has tracked the strength of these ties by analyzing civic life data from over 60,000 households each year. This is part of an ongoing effort to understand the delicate interplay between our democracy and everyday life.

All together, NCoC collects civic life information based on 20 indicators ranging from holding regular family dinners, trusting neighbors, voting in local elections, joining or leading local organizations, and confidence in major institutions. Our most recent data reveals a country continuing to focus inward and moving away from active community engagement. This is the kind of engagement that creates strong, protective social networks.

The latest data shows that 16 of the 20 indicators posted noticeable drops compared to earlier years. Drops were especially pronounced within important factors like Americans' willingness to join sports leagues or community associations and their confidence in institutions like the media and public schools. As our faith in each other and our institutions fray, so does our nation's power. Viewing the strength of our Union through this lens, it is clear we still have much to do.

Our country has always been hopeful. At our base, we are optimistic about the future and rightfully believe we can overcome the challenges that lie before us. Together, we can perfect the Union by strengthening our civic life. But to do this, everyday Americans and our leaders need to take action. There are steps we can take today to help secure our future. These include:

  • Support and join membership organizations. Sports leagues, civic associations, PTAs, fraternal organizations, and others connect us and open our minds to new experiences and ideas. They provide critical safety nets during our most difficult times, helping expand economic opportunity and providing emotional support.
  • Embed civics curriculum into primary education. Teaching civics early is a strong investment in the future of our democracy. Being an informed citizen requires a clear understanding of our government and political systems. Florida saw their students' civics comprehension make significant leaps by requiring it in their primary education. Other states can see this too.
  • Strengthen national service. Programs like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and Jesuit Volunteer Corps provide tens of thousands of young Americans with the opportunity to give back, develop skills, and create lasting connections with community members and employers. After spending a year teaching low-income students, rebuilding communities after a disaster, or repairing our national forests, service corps members feel more connected to their country and experience greater economic opportunity. This is one of America's great-untapped resources for promoting civic life and addressing our large societal challenges.
On America's 239th birthday, let's celebrate our past and plan for a more perfect future. Each of us can take an action, small or big. Those listed above are only a few ideas to get us started. In the end, any action that strengthens civic life can have a profound effect on our lives and the life of our nation.