Washington, D.C. — While studies by researchers and observations by youth organizers have hailed a rise in young people’s civic engagement in recent years, new information has some experts warning that when they scratch beneath the surface, they find cause for worry.
On the one hand, a decade of rising social and political activism by young people is holding at bay a precipitous decline in civic engagement by Americans overall, a panel of experts said last month at the release of a new study, “America’s Civic Health Index: Broken Engagement.”
But the increase among youth has been dampened by a widening socioeconomic gap, public mistrust in institutions and the lack of civic education in schools, they said.
The report is billed as the first measure of 40 key indicators of civic participation, such as volunteering and voter turnout. It was created by the National Conference on Citizenship, in partnership with the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland and the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
After taking a nosedive from 1975 to the late 1990s, volunteering, along with political activism and expression, has rebounded over the past decade among 16- to 25-year-olds, the report says. That’s particularly so since the 9/11 attacks, prompting some to dub that age group the “9/11 Generation.”
Older adults are not keeping up. While some experts had predicted a sustained civic reinvigoration among Americans of all ages (the so-called “9/11 effect”), that has not occurred, according to the report accompanying the civic health index.
However, political activities such as voting in federal elections, attending political meetings and making political donations have risen steadily since 1998, with young people making vital contributions. Nearly 21 million 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2004 presidential election, an increase of 4.6 million voters and 11 percentage points from 2000, according to the index.
The report also says young people are increasingly expressing their political views through Internet blogs and chat rooms, significantly raising the overall rate of political participation.
Dissecting the statistics produces some worries. For instance, people with college degrees were 15 percentage points ahead of those with no college experience on overall civic engagement in 2004 – a growing civic divide that all five panelists found troubling. The gap is reflected in engagement among young people as well.
“All of this upturn in civic engagement is concentrated among upper-middle-class kids of all races. For the lower classes, civic engagement continues to decline,” Bob Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of Bowling Alone (2000), said on the panel convened for the report’s release.
“For all practical purposes, if you’re a high school dropout, you have dropped out of this society – economically, politically and civically,” said panelist Bill Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Galston pointed out that while political engagement has risen in recent years, most other forms of community engagement are down, as is community trust and attentiveness to the news. Other measures of civic knowledge are flat or declining, he said.
Panelist Nina Rees, former deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement in the U.S. Department of Education, pointed to inadequate civic education and social studies instruction in public schools, and encouraged the public to follow the progress of the “American History Achievement Act,” sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The bill (S. 860) would amend the National Assessment of Educational Progress Authorization Act to require academic assessments of student achievement in U.S. history and civics.
Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, a principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future survey of high school seniors, pointed to a “troubling trend” in the way young people acquire (or don’t acquire) civic knowledge. According to Johnson, in 2005, only 27 percent of students surveyed said they had an interest in government and current affairs, and only one-quarter said they had an interest in the social problems of the nation and the world. Additionally, only 15 percent of high school seniors said they read a newspaper daily – down from 39 percent in 1989.
“Youth today can select what they want to see and hear. That’s not good,” Johnston said. “They need to hear the voices of others.”