Executive Summary

Pennsylvania Civic Health Index 2011

March 15, 2012
This is the second annual report on the civic health of Pennsylvania. The findings of the 2010 Pennsylvania Civic Health Index revealed that Pennsylvanians vote at about the same rate as citizens nationally and were slightly more likely to contact a public official, buy or boycott a product for social or political reasons, and participate in a political rally or march. They were less likely to discuss politics with family or friends, however, or to give money to a political candidate or party. On measures of community engagement, the findings of this year’s report are again mixed.
Pennsylvanians were slightly more likely to do volunteer work or make charitable contributions but less likely than other Americans to work with neighbors to address a community problem. In terms of social connectedness, the findings for Pennsylvania remain close to the national averages. Pennsylvanians are still slightly below the national average in using the Internet to talk with family and friends and in exchanging favors with their neighbors, but they are a bit more likely than other Americans to talk with their neighbors and to have dinner with their families at least a few times a week.

In short, this year’s data shows that, in general, there have been no drastic changes in the civic health of Pennsylvania relative to the previous year. Pennsylvanians continue to score near the national average on most measures of political and community engagement. Pennsylvania’s rankings nationally were up slightly on measures of voting, volunteering, and donating to charity, and its rankings were up significantly for two measures of community engagement: participating in community groups and working with neighbors to solve community problems.

On one measure of civic health, however, Pennsylvania showed a deep decline: the frequency with which citizens of the Commonwealth discuss politics with their family and friends. In the 2010 report, 34.7% of Pennsylvanians reported that they talked frequently about politics with their families or friends, which ranked the state 45th in the nation. In the most recent study, only 20.9% of Pennsylvanians said that they talked about politics frequently, dropping the state to 50th in the nation.

The most recent data reveals other causes for concern as well. Across a number of measures, the effects of differing levels of income and education are clearly evident. We also can see that, on many measures of civic health, race or ethnicity makes a difference, as does one’s geographical location—whether one lives in an urban, rural, or suburban area. These differences point to a possible lack of opportunity or incentive for civic engagement among certain segments of Pennsylvania’s population, and they point to some of the most fruitful avenues for promoting more citizen involvement in politics and civic life. For too many people in Pennsylvania, opportunities for—or barriers to—engagement are tied to their socio-economic status. Those lacking financial resources and educational opportunities also clearly lack pathways to meaningful engagement, as do those living in particular locations.

Key Indicators and Composite Measures
This study utilized a variety of key indicators, such as voting, participation in public meetings, and talking and working with friends and neighbors to assess Pennsylvania’s civic health. To begin illuminating patterns and trends in those indicators, we combined some of our individual measures of civic health into three composite measures: social connectedness, political action, and public work. These composite measures do not tell the whole story but provide a helpful framework for assessing the state of Pennsylvania’s civic health.

Social connectedness refers to the extent to which residents of the state engage in social interactions with their friends and families. This composite measure includes questions about how often families eat dinner together, communicate with friends via the Internet, visit with neighbors, and exchange favors with neighbors. When people are highly “connected,” they are usually better able to come together, communicate effectively, and solve local problems. Yet high levels of social connectedness do not, in themselves, indicate good civic health. Although social connectedness may be an important prerequisite to civic and political engagement, it does not guarantee that people will give of their time or participate actively in organized charitable or political causes.

Political action refers to conventional political activities intended to influence government or other large institutions. It is composed of these four measures: voting, discussing politics with family and friends, contacting public officials, and buying or boycotting products.

Public work refers to a composite measure that consists of a combination of attending meetings and working with neighbors to fix community problems. Nationally, only 4.7% of the public met this rather stringent definition of public work, yet that still represents some 11.2 million people who got involved in some fashion to work on public problems at the local level.

Civic health is not just the sum total of these composite measures, as there are other key indicators used in the study that are not included in these composite measures. Yet they can be used to sketch the broad outlines of our portrait of Pennsylvania’s civic life. We will then flesh out that portrait with other indicators of civic health, such as the rates of volunteering and participation in community groups. Taken together, all of these civic health indicators will allow us to develop a more complete and nuanced understanding of how well the citizens in Pennsylvania are able to work together - and with their local, state, and federal governments - to solve public problems and strengthen their communities. They also will help shape our recommendations for promoting more engaged citizenship, more productive public deliberation, and more cohesive and cooperative communities. Pennsylvania faces difficult political, social, and economic challenges in the 21st century. It is crucial that its citizens have the civic knowledge and skills they need to meet those challenges.

Composite Measures
In general, Pennsylvania resembles the rest of the nation in our composite measures of civic health. On the measure of social connectedness, Pennsylvania scored only slightly lower than the national average, with some interesting differences across demographic categories, including:

African Americans and Latinos were at higher risk of being socially isolated.

Pennsylvania’s elders (age 65+) were the most socially isolated, with 18.9% engaging in none of the four activities that make up the composite.

As in the nation as a whole, education correlated with social connectedness; better educated Pennsylvanians are more socially connected.

On the composite measure of political action, Pennsylvania scored slightly below the national average but exhibited many of the same characteristics and tendencies as the national sample. There were a few interesting findings, however. Statistics from Pennsylvania show that:

African Americans were the most engaged racial or ethnic group, with 64% reporting at least one political action, versus 58% of Whites and only 23.3% of Latinos.

As in the nation as a whole, age correlated with political engagement, with 68% of Pennsylvanians over age 65 taking at least one political action, as compared with fewer than a third of Pennsylvanians ages 18-24.

As in the nation as a whole, education was the best predictor of political action in Pennsylvania, with 79% of college graduates engaging in at least one political act as compared with only 36% of adults without high school diplomas.

On the composite measure of public work, Pennsylvania’s score is slightly higher than the national average, and again the patterns both resembled and differed from those found in the nation as a whole. The findings on these two indicators reveal that:

African Americans were more involved in public work than Whites in Pennsylvania, while the reverse was true nationally.

Nationally, 5.4% of employed and 4.0% of unemployed people (16 and older) engaged in public work. However, unemployed Pennsylvanians were slightly more likely than people with jobs to participate in public work.

As was the case nationally, older Pennsylvanians (age 65 and above) were more involved in public work than young people, but rates of public work for ages 20-24 and 25-35 in Pennsylvania were higher than the national average.

Public work was most common in rural areas and least prevalent in urban areas.

As elsewhere, public work correlated with education, but the rates of participation for the lowest educational levels were better in Pennsylvania than in the United States as a whole.

Overall, the gaps in public work by race, age, and education were less sharp in Pennsylvania than in other states.

Fleshing Out the Portrait of Pennsylvania’s Civic Life
Our composite measures only begin to tell the story of civic life. Indicators not included in the composite measures shed additional light on important aspects of civic engagement, and moving averages for some of these indicators point to possible trends, both positive and negative. Furthermore, demographic breakdowns reveal that political and civic engagement among Pennsylvanians varies significantly across income and educational levels. Age and race are also important factors in many of our measures of civic health. Clearly, not all citizens in Pennsylvania are equally engaged, and the data both reveals those differences and points to some of the ways that these gaps in civic participation might be addressed. Through civic education and targeted programs, Pennsylvania could do much more to involve those who have been disengaged or marginalized from politics and civic life in the Commonwealth.

Some of the more significant findings from our detailed analysis of the civic health indicators for Pennsylvania include:

Pennsylvania ranked 29th in volunteering in 2010, with a volunteerism rate of 26.9%. The national volunteering rate in 2010 was 26.3%. An estimated 2,700,000 residents volunteered in Pennsylvania in 2010. In 2009, 27.6% of Pennsylvania residents volunteered some of their time.

Pennsylvania ranked 35th in voter turnout in 2010, with a turnout rate of 43.9% for citizens age 18 and over; the national turnout was 45.5%. Pennsylvania’s voter turnout in 2006 was 47.6%, which ranked the state 28th nationally. In 2006, the national voter turnout rate for all eligible voters was 47.8%.

Pennsylvania ranked 33rd among all states in the rate of citizens who are registered to vote, at 64.6%. Pennsylvania’s voter registration rate in 2006, when the last midterm election was held, was 64.9%. The national voter registration rate for all eligible citizens was 65.1% in 2010 and 67.6% in 2006.

Pennsylvania ranked 29th in working with neighbors to solve community problems in 2010, with 8.3% of respondents reporting such neighborhood collaborations. Nationwide, 8.1% of Americans claimed to have worked with neighbors in 2010. In 2009, the national rate on this measure was 8.8%, while the rate for Pennsylvania was 7.3%.

Pennsylvania ranked 33rd in the rate of people who exchanged favors with neighbors frequently (defined as a few times a week or more). Only 14.4% of Pennsylvanians said they frequently exchange favors with their neighbors, compared to 15.2% of Americans nationwide. The national rate on this measure has not changed much since 2008-2009, when it was 16.2%. At that time, 15.9% of Pennsylvanians indicated that they frequently exchanged favors with neighbors.

Pennsylvania ranked 17th in the rate of people who belong to religious, neighborhood, school, sports, and other types of groups and organizations in their communities. Pennsylvanians participated in groups at the above-average rate of 37.1%, whereas Americans nationwide only participated at a rate of 33.3%. Pennsylvanians also reported taking leadership roles in groups at a rate higher than the national average, with 11.0% of Pennsylvanians saying that they served as an officer or a member of a committee for a local group, compared with only 9.1% nationally.

Pennsylvania ranked 43rd in the rate of people who said they eat dinner with their family a few times a week or more, with a rate of 86.6%. The 2010 national estimate for this indicator was 88.1%. In 2009, 90.4% of Pennsylvanians and 89.1% of Americans nationwide reported eating dinner with their family a few times a week.

Pennsylvania ranked 50th in the rate of people who talk about politics frequently with their friends and family (defined as at least a few times a week). Only 20.9% of Pennsylvanians reported talking with their friends or family about politics frequently, compared with 26.0% of Americans nationwide. Both the Pennsylvania and national rate have declined significantly since the 2008-2009 survey, when the rates were 34.7% for Pennsylvania and 39.3% for the nation.

Pennsylvania ranked 45th in the rate of people who communicated with friends or family frequently on the Internet (defined as at least a few times a week). Only 48.1% of Pennsylvanians reported talking with friends and family over the Internet, while nationally the rate was 54.3%.

The ultimate goal of this report is to inspire active citizenship and productive public dialogue to encourage civic health. The analysis and recommendations in this study provide a foundation for local, regional, and statewide discussions of how best to improve the civic health of the Commonwealth and its people. Civic health is the key to an empowered citizenry, cohesive communities, and effective public policy-making—the hallmarks of a high-functioning democracy. In fact, it is essential to the furtherance of American freedom, as outlined by our nation’s founding document. As President Theodore Roosevelt noted, “The people themselves must be the ultimate makers of their own Constitution.”

The habits and skills of engaged democratic citizenship are learned, not inherited. In order to achieve the goal of civic health, Pennsylvania must broaden its civic engagement while continuing to promote civic education. If Pennsylvania aspires to become a more vibrant and civically engaged and inclusive state, it needs leaders committed to democratic participation, and it needs to commit to educating and empowering its citizens. Even in those measures where Pennsylvania compares favorably with other states, there is room for improvement. With bold leadership and an active citizenry, Pennsylvania can build a stronger representative democracy and find solutions to its problems that work for all of its citizens.

There are many different ways to be a “good citizen,” of course, and our study takes that into account. For some, being a good citizen may mean voting in elections, donating money to political candidates, or making their political views known at a town meeting or campaign rally. For others, it might mean something very different: getting involved in their local community, raising money for a worthy cause, or joining forces with neighbors to clean up a local park. The measures of civic health used in this study span a range of behaviors and activities, from talking or exchanging favors with neighbors to more traditional forms of political participation, such as contacting public officials or going to the polls on Election Day. However Pennsylvanians define what it means to be a good citizen, the data examined in this study will allow us to compare their levels of active engagement to those of other states and to suggest ways that the Commonwealth might improve its civic health profile through education, institutional reforms, and programs designed to encourage citizen involvement in the democratic process.
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