Executive Summary

August 27, 2009
America’s Civic Health Index for 2009 shows that the economic recession is causing a civic depression. The national survey finds that 72% of Americans say they cut back on the time they spent volunteering, participating in groups, and doing other civic activities in the past year, during the same period when the economy was free-falling.

Although this does not mean three-quarters of our population have stopped participating, it does mean they are participating less, and thus our overall civic capacity, or cumulative social capital, has significantly decreased.

Public perception supports this finding as 66% of Americans say they feel other people are responding to the current economic downturn by looking out for themselves, while only 19% said people around them are responding to the recession by helping each other more.

This civic downturn is troubling at time when the need for service and civic action is especially great. In this recession, families struggle, communities hurt, and our economy refuses to stabilize. During the first quarter of 2009, 12 million Americans were unemployed, almost twice as many as last year, making it the worst quarter since the Bureau started tracking employment in 1948. In our sample, 20% of households reported the loss of a job by one of their members and 31% had trouble affording food or medication.

At this time of grave challenges, trust in our government and in other key institutions have reached new lows. Only 6% of Americans have a “great deal of confidence” in Congress, the Executive Branch, or banks and financial institutions, and major companies occupy the basement of public trust at only 5%. This is a significant change as major companies were the 3rd most trusted institution in 2000 and have fallen to 10th in 2009, and banks have fallen from 2nd in 2000, 2004, and 2006 to 7th in 2009.

In these troubling times, however, there is a silver lining, a ray of hope, a demonstration of America’s good heart. This year, we investigated a few new indicators of engagement – more personal forms of participation that often go unnoticed.

In the past year:

50% gave food or money to someone in need who is not a relative
43% gave food or money to someone in need who is a relative
17% allowed a relative to live in their home or on their property
11% allowed a non-relative to live in their home or on their property

These forms of civic engagement need to be further explored, as they are every bit as critical as activities such as charity walks and volunteering. Interestingly, people with the least means are giving the most. Although people of modest means are less likely to volunteer than affluent Americans (29% vs. 50%), they are more likely to give food, money or shelter (24% vs. 21%). When looking specifically at those who do not participate in traditional forms of volunteering, 39% of those making less than $50,000 helped in other ways like providing food and shelter, versus only 27% of those in higher income brackets.

In addition to turning inward to take care of one’s family and friends, Americans are also focusing their trust toward more personal institutions -- small/local businesses received the highest level of public trust with 31% expressing a “great deal of confidence.”

Organized religion also saw an increase in trust as this institution moved from 5th place in 2002 to 2nd in 2009. Participation in religious groups played a major role in resiliency -- 40% of those who attend religious services frequently reported an increase in their civic engagement, matched only by those who spend a great deal of time visiting their friends.

Beyond the differences between socio-economic classes, there are also interesting variations based on age and race.

Millennials lead the way in volunteering with a 43% service rate, compared to only 35% for Baby Boomers. Even within a generation, there are significant differences as 45% of Baby Boomers who are still in the work force volunteer versus only 23% of those who are retired. Additionally, Baby Boomers are engaging in other ways – 38% of Baby Boomers (49% of those in retirement and 33% of those still working) gave food, money or shelter while only 28% of Millennials did the same.

Millennials who use social networking sites for civic causes are also more civically engaged in their communities. Although we cannot conclude that belonging to social networking sites alone causes an increase in civic engagement, those who engage online come from diverse economic and educational backgrounds, illustrating the potential of how technology can bridge traditional civic gaps. Online platforms provide engagement opportunities for many Americans who may not belong to a formal volunteering organization.

Although trust in federal government was quite low overall, African Americans were much more likely to have some level of trust in federal government (40%) versus Whites (22%). Yet, trust of small businesses was only 15% among African Americans versus 36% for Whites.

In the aftermath of the intense 2008 presidential campaign, only 8% of people have tried to change policies in their local communities and only 12% have contacted public officials about issues that arose in the campaign. But the political conversation continues as 33% said that they had tried to persuade friends about issues that arose in the campaign.

In exploring potential solutions and ways people are willing to respond to the economic downturn, we found that 32% of Americans are “very willing” to buy U.S.-made products (67% somewhat/very willing), and a total of 69% are somewhat/very willing to give more food to those in need.

Tax breaks, paid time off, and educational vouchers are the incentives that people favored most as ways of increasing levels of public engagement. Additionally, there was very high support for public policy that provides tuition credit for community service, a national deliberation involving a million Americans on an important issue, requiring all high schools to provide service-learning courses, and implementing a new civics test to emphasize the need for civic education (all garnered 65-80% support).

The most important factors when choosing a career are salary and job security, with only 6% saying the public benefit of their career was their top motivator. However, the top industry that would “allow you to do the most good for your community or country” was a socially responsible corporation at 19%, compared to Fortune 500 companies that received the lowest marks at only 7%.

Finally, in the 2009 survey, we asked, “In your opinion, how strong is the civic tradition of your state?” The top three states in this regard were Texas, Minnesota and Kansas (Vermont and Utah scored higher, but the sample sizes were too small to provide reliable estimates). Citizens of Illinois, Arizona, and Georgia were likely to rate their civic traditions as weaker than other states.

In addition to the America’s Civic Health Index report, the National Conference on Citizenship will be partnering with local institutions to release state specific reports in California, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Ohio throughout the fall of 2009.
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