the economic consequences of civic engagement

unemplyment report cover “Civic Health and Unemployment: Can Engagement Strengthen the Economy?” That is the title of a new report that we released today with the National Conference on Citizenship, Civic Enterprises, the Saguaro Seminar, and the National Constitution Center.

We ran a regression with all the major economic factors thought to explain changes in employment in recent years. That model explained about 28% of the variance in unemployment at the state level. We then added civic engagement measures. The new model explained 64% of the variance. Several civic measures—notably volunteering, working with neighbors, and attending meetings—were statistically significant and strong predictors of unemployment change; none of the individual economic factors retained their significance.

In short, the more civic engagement, the less unemployment. Some of the details are interesting as well. For example, newspaper reading is a positive predictor, although it just missed being statistically significant in the final model that we chose to use. But television and internet news consumption were negative predictors, to statistically significant degrees. More couch potatoes=more unemployment.

The report offers many caveats and is written–appropriately–in a very cautious style. But if we had chosen to play by Beltway Rules, we would have simply said that civic engagement is the underlying factor responsible for how states have weathered the recession. That theory at least deserves more attention. It seems plausible to us because:

  • Participation in civil society can develop skills, confidence, and habits that make individuals employable and strengthen the networks that help them to find jobs
  • People get jobs through social networks (online and offline)
  • Participation in civil society spreads information relevant to investors and workers
  • Participation in civil society is strongly correlated with trust in other people, and people who trust others are more likely to invest and hire
  • Communities and political jurisdictions with stronger civil societies are more likely to have good governments
  • Civic engagement can encourage people to feel attached to their communities

The report concludes:

Even at a time when the global economy has been buffeted by strong and dangerous forces, all communities have capital and skills that can be deployed to create or preserve jobs. Investors may be more willing to create jobs locally if they trust other people and the local government, if they feel attached to their community, if they know about opportunities and can disseminate information efficiently, and if they feel that the local workforce is skilled. All these factors correlate with civic engagement. Those correlations, plus the other evidence cited in this report, lend some plausibility to the thesis that civic health matters for economic resilience.

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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.