- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

Civic engagement is often thought of as simply volunteering or voting, but this definition limits our understanding of what is really happening in communities across the country. In response to these tough economic times, people are opening their homes, their kitchens and their dining rooms to fellow Americans in need. Two important trends identified by this month’s release of America’s Civic Health Index, the nation’s pre-eminent measure of civic engagement, help redefine citizenship and expand our characterization of this age-old term.

Taken together, these two trends tell an important story about the good heart of America and the willingness of Americans to solve problems in their own communities. We think these trends should be kept in mind as our elected leaders work to craft federal and state solutions to our economic hard times and business leaders work to revive our economy.

The index has been compiled since 2006 by the National Conference on Citizenship, the only organization chartered by Congress to focus on the quality of our civic engagement, and a group of leading social scientists that includes Robert D. Putnam, William Galston, John M. Bridgeland and Steven Goldsmith.

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This year’s index measures the effect of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and it clearly shows that Americans are turning inward. That’s the first trend. The index finds that 72 percent of Americans report being less engaged in volunteering, participating in groups or performing other civic acts in their communities. What’s more, 66 percent say they feel other people are responding to the current economic downturn by looking out for themselves.

Do these statistics really mean Americans are turning away from their communities? We think not. Fifty percent of Americans report that they gave food or money to someone in need who is not a relative and 11 percent have opened their homes to provide shelter for non-relatives. As we suggest above, this more intimate form of engagement is a new and broader definition, without the longitudinal data yet to prove the trend statistically. However, we can compare these numbers to the 40 percent of people who report volunteering in a more structured and traditional way, such as through a school, church or local club.

Beyond the fact that people are turning to this personal form of service, leading the way are Americans of more modest means, who are less likely to volunteer than more affluent Americans but more likely to provide food and shelter to others.

It’s always easy to get lost in the statistics, but in modeling these behaviors, Americans seem to be saying that they are not turning away from their communities but refocusing their energies to help neighbors and others closest to them in more personal ways.

What seems to confirm that judgment is a second trend that measures whom Americans trust. The answer is “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.” Tough times are leading Americans to focus their trust on more personal institutions, with small or local businesses receiving the highest level of public trust. Organized religion — local churches, synagogues and mosques — jumped from fifth place in 2002 to second place in the 2009 survey, with 40 percent of those who “attend religious services frequently” reporting an increase in their civic activity. Bringing up the rear were Congress, the executive branch, banks and major companies, which occupy the basement of public trust. This is a complete reversal in the trust structure of Americans in the past five years, and it should have important implications for those who lead these institutions.

We think federal and state policymakers should take care to avoid making laws and regulations that frustrate the natural healing powers inherent in our communities. To the contrary, our leaders can enhance the good standing of the institutions they run by crafting public policies and business practices that rebuild public trust in the process.

We think legislators should engage citizens on the best ways to improve their communities. Instead of allowing town-hall meetings to devolve into angry sessions on health care reform, why not redirect this energy to solve more localized problems? Why not form social innovation funds that invest in people who rise up to solve local problems? Why not educate our people in the values and skills of participatory citizenship so that their natural inclinations can be more fully used in civic action for their neighbors and the country?

Americans are telling us they are ready, willing and able to act, but we need to meet them where they are. Why not put our trust in them?

Bob Graham is a former governor and senator of Florida and an affiliate of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Michael Weiser is chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship.

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