Study Finds that God, Friends, and Facebook are Important Factors for Fostering Civic Engagement

Washington, DC (August 27, 2009)- As economic distress continues through the summer and into the fall, Americans are suffering from a “civic foreclosure” that is limiting the range and depth of their civic engagement, according to a new study by National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC). The annual America’s Civic Health Index, based on survey data collected in May 2009, is a look at the state of civic engagement in America that reflects the impact of the economic crisis.


The survey’s results reflect the hard choices Americans have made during the downturn, with 72 percent of respondents saying they have cut back on time engaged in civic participation, which includes time spent volunteering, participating in groups or performing other civic activities in their communities. Public perception supports this finding, as 66 percent of Americans say they feel other people are responding to the current economic downturn by looking out for themselves, with only 19 percent saying people around them are responding to the recession by helping each other more.
“The economic crisis has triggered civic foreclosure,” said Michael Weiser, NCoC Chairman, “The good heart of Americans is still very evident, though, as they refocus on basic needs.”
Even though they are disproportionately affected by the economic downturn, low-income Americans are still finding ways to give back to their communities. Thirty-nine percent of respondents with an income less than $50,000 reported helping others by providing food or shelter, compared to only 27 percent of Americans with a higher income. Overall, 50 percent of Americans gave food or money to someone who was not a relative, while 17 percent allowed a relative to live in their home and more than one-in-ten took in non-relatives.
The Civic Health Index also explored the relationship between online forms of engagement and community-based civic activities. The results found that Millennials who use social networking sites for civic purposes are far more likely to actively engage in civic participation in their communities.
Religion plays a major role in civic engagement, as 40 percent of respondents who reported they are frequent participants in religious services noted they had increased their level of civic engagement. In addition, individuals who reported they had a high level of social activity – visiting often with friends, eating together as a family or belonging to a local club – also reported an increase in civic engagement. The results indicate that social engagement through church, friends or even via social networking sites can have a significant impact in countering the negative effect of the current economic downturn on civic engagement.
“God, friends, and Facebook provide a civic safety net,” said David B. Smith, NCoC Executive Director, “Spending time with others enhances social connections that provide resiliency in tough economic times.”
The Civic Health Index also found generational differences. Of those surveyed, Baby Boomers had the lowest volunteering rate at 35 percent, while Millennials had the highest rate at 43 percent. However, in terms of material contributions including providing food, money or shelter, Baby Boomers were far more likely to provide support (38 percent) compared to Millennials (28 percent).
“We had hoped the economic hardship might trigger more compassion as people saw real suffering and needs,” said John Bridgeland, Chairman of NCoC’s Advisory Board and CEO of Civic Enterprises. “While this is not true for volunteering, it is true for providing food and shelter. And people with the least means are giving the most.”
Other Key Findings
* 31 percent of survey respondents noted they had a “great deal of confidence” in small businesses, making them the most trusted institution. In turn, major companies ranked last on the Index in terms of public confidence (5 percent), with banks, Congress and the executive branch garnering 6 percent.
* 40 percent of African Americans expressed some level of trust in federal government, compared to only 22 percent of Whites
* 68 percent of respondents say that they would be willing to provide food to those in need
* 69 percent of respondents say that they would buy U.S.-made products to help foster improved local economic activity
America’s Civic Health Index is released annually in conjunction with NCoC’s conference. The conference will be held on Wednesday, September 9, in Washington, D.C., and will explore the issues presented in this year’s Civic Health Index. Registration remains open at www.ncoc.net/conference.
Related Resources:
America’s Civic Health Index 2009
National Conference on Citizenship
New York Times- Volunteering Waning in Recession
NonProfit Times- Americans Cut Volunteer Time, Focus On Personal Priorities
Case Foundation- Study Finds that God, Friends, and Facebook are critical in tough times
Global Grind- Democracy Will be OK, Thanks to my Friends
Social Citizens- When the going gets tough, Millennials and social media get going
NPR Marketplace- Job lows don’t mean volunteer highs