North Carolina’s Civic Health

Every semester, I start my political science classes by asking students how interested they are in politics and how engaged they are in various forms of civic engagement. This exercise illustrates an obvious point–some are very engaged with all forms of civic engagement from voting to volunteering and many young people are disengaged.

Disengaged students offer a variety of reasons for not participating in politics. One students said succinctly: “I don’t like choosing between Democrats and Republicans. Why can’t there be another choice?” Another said: “Politicians don’t deal with my problems. Are they listening?” Both questions illustrate how politics can be uninviting to young people–even those engaged in other forms of civic engagement.

The evidence from the most recent North Carolina Civic Health Index, based on U.S. census data, is clear: Young North Carolinians are significantly less engaged than older citizens in almost every aspect of political life. But the data — and my experiences with young people themselves — also suggest that many young people are involved in other ways, and that civic engagement can be nurtured more effectively.

First, let’s look at political participation. Voting is the most obvious type of civic engagement. Young people 18-29 had relatively strong voter turnout in recent presidential elections, in part because of the candidacy of Barack Obama, but also because of voter laws in North Carolina that allowed voter registration for 16 and 17 year-olds, same day voter registration, and early voting.  This is not, however, the case during off-year elections. Only about eight percent of young North Carolinians voted in the most recent municipal elections.

At the same time, the vast majority of young North Carolinians are not completely disengaged. Two in 10 aged 18-29 volunteer for organizations, compared with 26.3 percent of those who are 30 and older. And among the youngest group queried by the census — 16- to 24-year-olds — 18.5 percent have volunteered. Unlike the gaping political participation divide between younger and older North Carolinians, these data suggest a younger generation that is just about as involved in civic life as its elders. And the far less severe age gap in discussing politics is also noteworthy — as is the slight edge young people hold in expressing their opinions on the internet.

None of these rates is as high as we might want for a truly active citizenry. But these differences across forms of political and civic involvement urge us to consider what it is about politics that is not inviting to young people.

National data show several reasons why young people don’t vote. Interestingly, about 30 percent of young people nationally said they didn’t vote in 2010 because they were “too busy” — roughly the same percentage of North Carolinians of all ages who said the same. Other reasons also stand out. For those in college, almost one-fourth said they were out of town or away from home — a significant hurdle for young people who have to figure out how to vote long distance when they don’t attend college in their hometowns or states. For those not attending college, the second-most frequently stated reason for not voting was that they “weren’t interested” or that they felt their vote “wouldn’t matter.”

How can these obstacles and attitudes be reversed?

Several particularly important approaches stand out for nurturing engagement among young people.

One is strengthening civics education in our schools. Research shows that students who receive high-quality civics education in school are more likely to vote and to discuss politics at home, more likely to volunteer and work on community issues, and are more confident in their ability to speak publicly and to communicate with their elected officials.

North Carolina is one of almost a dozen states that require both course completion and student assessment in civics. But while testing and assessment are important, the most effective approaches go further. Civics education needs to involve students in active learning that builds useful civic skills and creates a sense of civic attachment. Many high school teachers take advantage of the resources available through organizations like the North Carolina Civics Education Consortium, but many of the avenues to active learning offered through NC Closeup, Governor’s School, and page and intern programs have or will lose funding and are being eliminated or changed through legislative action. It is critical to have enrichment opportunities available to as many North Carolina high school students as possible.

Another step is improving access to higher education. Better-educated North Carolinians are more likely to vote; more likely to express their views to family, friends and elected officials; more likely to volunteer and join civic organizations; and more likely to work with others to address problems in their communities.

In part this is because education is associated with higher income, greater leisure time and greater self-esteem. Earning a college degree produces people with greater resources for civic participation. But even limited exposure to the college classroom is correlated with levels of engagement, suggesting that the college experience itself plays an important role in creating actively engaged citizens. This is no small concern for a state in which 15 percent of residents lack even a high school diploma, and another 32 percent have only that.

Another approach is building more opportunities for online participation — in which young people already have a slight edge. According to a recent national survey, online social networks are most heavily used by young people, and approximately 66 percent of social media users use these platforms to “post their thoughts about civic and political issues, react to others’ postings, press friends to act on issues and vote, [and] follow candidates.” Accordingly, one path to building more engaged citizenship runs through digital and social media.

Investments in civics education and enrichment, the number of North Carolinians, and increased online civic participation will definitely help young people become more fully engaged citizens. There are, unfortunately, many policy changes being implemented after the last legislative session that will hurt civic engagement, particularly voting. For example, same-day voter registration is correlated with higher voter turnout overall, and among young voters in particular. In 2008, according to CIRCLE, 59 percent of Americans aged 18-29 whose home states offered Election Day Registration voted — nine percentage points higher than those who did not live in EDR states.

Even with voting law changes in North Carolina that hurt the political participation of young people, it is the attitude of many elected and political party officials that most turns off young people and may be creating a generation of citizens less civically engaged than possible. Tt is crucial that political officials and institutions do not treat the currently under-engaged as if they will always be so. As the recent Millennials Civic Health Index noted, “When political parties, civic associations, news organizations, and other institutions assume that young people do not engage, these institutions may avoid trying to recruit youth, which can lead to a cycle of disengagement.” The same can be said for other groups — Hispanics, African-Americans, immigrants and others — who could be assertively invited into the civic life of our state.

Civic engagement, as my own students will attest, is a multi-faceted issue. North Carolina, if it hopes to create a generation of truly engaged citizens and future leaders must make investments in those young people now in high school and college. It is not as simple as repealing a law or revising (or eliminating) the Core Core. It must begin with the attitude that young people will not only inherit the problems being left to them by the current generation of people in charge, but that they will need to fix them. It also means that investing in citizenship be treated on par with other investments, like public safety, that seem to be prioritized as more important.

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