civic engagement in recessions

I am going to DC today very briefly for the release of the 2009 Civic Health Index by the National Conference on Citizenship. As in past years, we did most of the technical work for the NCoC’s Index. The title of their report is “Civic Health in Hard Times,” and the main finding is that engagement has really fallen this year.

The following graph didn’t make the final report, for appropriate reasons–it seemed a bit ambiguous and not necessarily persuasive. But I think it’s interesting enough for a blog, if not for a shiny national report.

It graphs the NCoC’s Index of Civic Health–composed of our favorite 40 indicators, from volunteering to following the news–along with the unemployment rate. In general, the relationship is positive (a healthy .59 correlation). When unemployment gets worse, people engage more–perhaps to meet increased need, or possibly because some of them have time on their hands. But there was an exception. When unemployment reached and surpassed 10% in the 1980-82 recession, civic engagement fell pretty sharply, driven in large part by a decline in volunteering.

We think we’re seeing a similar dip in 2009. My best guess is that modern civic engagement depends on a funded infrastructure. You can’t tutor kids if the school lays off its literacy coordinator. You can’t read to kids if the library branch is closed. Thus, when the economy really gets bad, even though the need for engagement is high, opportunities suddenly dry up and civic health falls.

(I should note that the NCoC’s report makes this suggestion, but not by using the graph shown above.)