- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Five years after September 11, we can begin to assess whether tragedy also bred civic transformation. The National Conference on Citizenship, a non-profit created by Congress to strengthen our civic ties, recently released its new Civic Health Index, which charts our nation’s civic progress over the last 30 years. While there are signs of civic recovery in areas of national focus, our civic health shows steep declines in most of 40 measures.

Youth volunteering is a bright spot. Over the past decade, young people age 16 to 24 have narrowed the gap with adults in volunteering. Levels of volunteering have been so high for youth compared to their Baby Boomer parents that some talk of a “9/11 Generation.” By some measures, about half of today’s youth volunteer, up 10-15 percentage points from the 1970s. Although we cannot be sure why youth volunteering has burgeoned, or whether resume-building played a role, we note growing efforts to combine classroom learning with community service, increases in national and international service opportunities, and calls to service issued from presidents.

But youth and adults alike are not participating in community projects or attending club meetings: the everyday, face-to-face settings of democracy. And those who still participate tend to be privileged. College graduates now dominate community life, while high-school dropouts are almost completely missing. Half of Americans who work on community projects and attend meetings are college graduates, while only 3 percent of these active citizens are high school dropouts. College graduates are more than four times as likely to volunteer and twice as likely to vote as their peers who never finish high school.

Our political participation, while spiraling downward from 1975 to 1998, has risen lately in activities such as voting in federal elections, attending political meetings, and making political donations. During the 2004 presidential election, more than 122 million Americans voted — the highest turnout since 1968 and largest uptick since 1952. Nearly 4.3 million more 18-29-year-olds voted in 2004 than in 2000, a significant upsurge given steep declines in prior years.

While political activities are rising, trust in one another and in key institutions has steadily declined. As many Americans suspect, our politics are both more engaging and more divisive, drawing more people to the polls but making it more difficult to solve public problems.

Across the vast majority of our 40 indicators of civic health, we see declines in most — belonging to civic and religious groups, attending meetings, connecting to family and friends and staying informed on public affairs. Even in areas where there is progress, we still under-perform as a nation, with only 29 percent of the population volunteering and 58 percent of the population voting. Of 172 countries ranked for voter turnout in elections since 1945, the United States ranked 139th.

History tells us we can make civic gains. The Greatest Generation, born prior to 1930, ushered in robust civic health in the mid-part of the last century. During that time, there also was more equal opportunity, a smaller gap between rich and poor, and greater cooperation across party lines to address our nation’s challenges.

So what’s to be done? Schools need to foster civic learning and skills, teach the core ideas from American history, offer students opportunities for participation, and increase the numbers of students who graduate from high school with the skills for college and the experience of community service.

Community and national service programs, such as AmeriCorps, Peace Corps and the new Citizen Corps for homeland security, should enlist more Americans into full-time and part-time service. Workplaces should conduct civic audits to ensure their policies regularly enlist employees to serve in their communities. Houses of worship of different faiths should mobilize youth to serve in communities together, promoting both problem-solving and peace.

We must make congressional and other elections more competitive, by giving redistricting authority to neutral commissions and finding ways to increase citizen voices and decrease the influence of money.

These policy debates should occur with better data. The new Civic Health Index is a start in having good feedback measures with localized information. Given the challenges we now face, it is time to make civic health a greater national priority. For when that health is vibrant, opportunities for social mobility are higher, our communities and country are stronger, and our own lives are enriched.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and on the advisory board of the National Conference on Citizenship. Peter Levine is director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland. Both participated in the the National Conference on Citizenship’s study, Broken Engagement: America’s Civic Health Index.

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