Spotlight Exclusives

September 28, 2009: Civic Health in Hard Times, By Peter Levine, Director of CIRCLE, and John Bridgeland, Chair of the National Conference on Citizenship

Posted on

Since his passing in August, Ted Kennedy has been hailed for his record as one of the great liberal leaders of the Democratic Party.  Yet we should not overlook one of Kennedy۪s most significant bipartisan accomplishments and a major element of his legacy: engaging more Americans in serving their nation.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


As a sponsor of the bipartisan Serve America Act which bore his name when it was signed into law last April Senator Kennedy recognized that participation in the civic sector is critical for our nation.  Unfortunately, as volunteer and charity work grows more critical during the recession, our civic health is in serious trouble. 


The National Conference on Citizenship recently released the fourth annual Civic Health Index, a review of our nation۪s civic participation. It revealed disturbing trends.  Despite millions of Americans newly in need during a time of economic hardship, Americans are turning inward and giving less time and support to their fellow citizens.


During the first quarter of 2009, as unemployment skyrocketed, 72 percent of Americans said they reduced the time they spent on civic engagement, which included volunteering, attending meetings, and working on community projects with neighbors. Two thirds said they believed that their fellow citizens were turning inwards in response to these hard economic times, while less than a fifth said they believed that Americans were being more charitable.


As economic pressure increases for so many families, we need to help each other and stay engaged.  There۪s no doubt that Americans are facing some tough choices right now, but the decline in civic participation couldn۪t be happening at a worse time.


Yet it۪s actually the most vulnerable Americans, including those in poverty, that have provided the best examples of civic commitment.  Although service has declined overall, of respondents earning less than $50,000, 39 percent provided food and shelter to someone in need compared with only 27 percent of those with higher incomes.


To address problems like poverty, we need citizens to do more than serve and give money, important as those acts are. In healthy communities, people also come together to discuss causes and solutions, lead and manage organizations that address poverty, and even invent new programs or groups when necessary. Poor Americans are almost as engaged as wealthy ones when we ask about demanding forms of engagement, like “working with neighbors on a community project.”


The engagement of poor Americans should inspire us, but should also urge those of us who are more fortunate to think about ways we can serve.


A strong commitment to civil society is part of what has always made America strong.  Even now, over two-thirds (68 percent) say that they would be willing to provide food to those in need.   Similar numbers want to buy American-made products, and nearly half of Americans would be willing to work less and take less pay so that other employees can keep their jobs. 


What Americans need now are opportunities to come together and help each other during the downturn.  President Obama has said that he will make “service and active citizenship” a “central cause of my presidency,” and Congress should join the president in creating opportunities for all to participate.


Fully funding the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act would be a strong start.  The Act will not only reinvigorate service in America, but will also provide our economy with a quick jolt. It will more than triple national service positions across America from 75,000 to 250,000, putting more Americans into productive work in this tough economy in programs such as such as Teach for America, City Year and Habitat for Humanity.  These are job creation programs for those they employ and antipoverty programs for those they reach.


During a time when the political debates of the day remind us too sharply of some of our differences, it۪s also worth noting that the Act is among the strongest bipartisan measures Congress has passed this year.


As applications for national service positions increase and qualified candidates who want to serve are turned away, now is the time to get behind one of Ted Kennedy۪s most important pieces of legislation.  Fully funding the Act will help Americans who want to serve get the opportunity. It will ensure that the spirit of civic participation is strong for the 21st century.  And it will put boots on the ground where they۪re needed during a time of prolonged hardship.


Creating thousands of new slots for national service volunteers is not enough; these positions must be good for society and for the volunteers. The Act focuses its resources on a few national priorities, including disparities in health care and high school education, and it requires measurements of impact on communities. Meanwhile, the volunteers should obtain civic skills that will make them effective citizens for the rest of their lives. That requires a new focus on the educational aspects of national servicesomething that was essential to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression.


During our tough times, Americans face difficult choices between looking after themselves and working with their neighbors on common problems. President Obama and leaders in Congress with the power to make a difference need to step forward and live up to Senator Kennedy۪s legacy of service.


Americans are ready to serve.  Let۪s realize Senator Kennedy۪s belief in “our common obligation to give of ourselves.”


Peter Levine is Director of CIRCLE and Research Director of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University.  John Bridgeland is Chair of the National Conference on Citizenship and President and CEO of Civic Enterprises. Mr. Bridgeland is a member of the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity Steering Committee.  He served as Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush. Both authors were leaders in the development of the Civic Health Index.


« Back to Spotlight Exclusives