About 40% of young people don’t attend college at all. In a classic example of a vicious cycle, these young adults are largely ignored by campaigns, reporters, policymakers, and even academics. As a result, the non-college 40% tend not to vote–their turnout, even in the relatively good year of 2008, was only 36%–and that makes them even less influential. They are, for instance, unlikely to show up as “likely voters” in election-season polls, so no one cares about their preferences for candidates and issues.
Since CIRCLE was founded in 2001, we have focused consistently on non-college-attending young adults. We’ve been trying to break the vicious cycle. After all, there’s no law that says that because people are politically marginalized, you have to marginalize them further with your reporting and analysis.
Our latest ambitious report is entitled That’s NOT Democracy: How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in their Way. It was four years in the making, and we released it on August 23. Before that, we had shared an embargoed version with the New York Times‘ Susan Saulny. She was persuaded to conduct her own reporting, with contributions from Times reporters Robbie Brown, Dan Frosch and Steven Yaccino and photographers Jeff Swensen, Brian Blanco, and Darren Hauck. The result is a story by Saulny headed “Struggling Young Adults Pose Challenge for Campaigns,” which is currently the lead on the Times online version. It includes the following paragraphs about our work, but the most important contribution is the Times’ own reporting, which may help to make working class young adults more visible:
Experts say that the segment of young working-class people who are struggling may appear disengaged, but that they are also highly persuadable. “Extensive research shows that if you ask young people to volunteer or vote, they respond at high rates,” said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
In a report released in August, researchers from the center found that the most important factor in explaining low levels of civic participation may not be apathy but merely “an absence of opportunity and recruitment.” The report suggested that being “personally and explicitly asked” is perhaps the most important catalyst that motivates young people without college degrees to take political action.
Coverage begets coverage: because of this story, I was on CBS drive-time radio this morning as well.