civic engagement strengthens employment: the case builds

(Philadelphia) The National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), which is about to meet in this city, has just released Civic Health and Unemployment II: The Case Builds. Written by Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Chaeyoon Lim, and me, this is a more extensive and ambitious follow-up to the report entitled Civic Health and Unemployment: Can Engagement Strengthen the Economy? which NCoC, CIRCLE, Civic Enterprises, the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University, and the National Constitution Center produced in 2011.

In 2011, we found that states and large metropolitan areas with high levels of civic engagement prior to the Great Recession suffered less unemployment between 2006 and 2010. The relationship between civic health and economic resilience held even when we adjusted for the economic factors that are usually thought to influence unemployment, such as demographics and changes in housing prices.

To be sure, civic engagement is not the only factor that matters. Las Vegas lost jobs because of the collapse of the housing market; Detroit, because of changes in the auto market. But, given two states with similar economic conditions, the one with more civic engagement would weather the recession better.

Since 2011, in partnership with the NCoC, and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, CIRCLE has continued to investigate this topic. For the 2012 report, we investigated the relationship between civic health and unemployment in all 50 states, 942 metro areas, and more than 3,100 counties. We added new statistical controls (alternative explanations of unemployment change) to the model, analyzed a Census Current Population survey that follows individuals over time, and incorporated the results of the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community Survey, which investigated a wider range of opinions and attitudes than are measured in federal surveys.

The basic pattern found in the 2011 report held up: communities with more civic engagement in 2006 suffered less from unemployment in the Great Recession, even when other possible explanations are factored in.

The new analysis also directed attention to two particular aspects of civic engagement: (1) the number and type of nonprofit organizations per capita and (2) the effects of social cohesion (informal socializing and collaboration among peers). Both independently predict the degree to which communities avoided unemployment.  As an example of a finding in the report, consider this graph:

In 2006, states that had a high degree of social connectedness had very similar unemployment rates to states with low social connectedness. But by 2010, the two groups of states had diverged, so that the highly connected states had two percentage points less unemployment.

More, including some discussion of possible causal mechanisms, in this summary on the CIRCLE site.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.