In the past several years, city councils, governors' cabinets, regional Federal Reserve Banks, and President Obama's own economic advisors have searched for creative ways to improve our local and national economy. In these diverse conversations, ideas such as moving sports stadiums downtown, recruiting a new research center, attracting the latest technology conference, or launching a new tourism campaign have been suggested as a means to invest in the local economy and create jobs.
In how many of these discussions do you think volunteerism, neighborliness or nonprofits ever came up? Financial capital is always at the table, human capital is often included, but social capital is mostly overlooked. While each of these ideas have great merit, the latter is less expensive by an order of magnitude and will not only reduce unemployment today, it will build economic resiliency for the future.
Last fall, the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) in partnership with several organizations including CIRCLE, and Harvard's Saguaro Seminar, published a report showing the strong correlation between civic health and unemployment. In short, cities and states with high levels of civic health in 2006 rebuffed the economic collapse and unemployment crisis better than their less-engaged counterparts. This was true even when controlling for numerous economic variables -- including housing inflation, presence of oil and gas industries, and a workforce with professional degrees.
Not only did these findings hold up, but we were able to go a step further and show the magnitude of how civic health indicators connect with unemployment. Our data shows that, in the midst of an economic crisis during which almost all communities experienced a sharp increase in unemployment, a community that had higher rates of residents working together experienced a less severe increase in unemployment. For example, if a community's rate of working with neighbors was four percent points above average, then that community would have experienced one percent point less increase in the unemployment rate between 2006 and 2009. Public meeting attendance had the second highest correlation, followed closely by volunteering.
How does civic health lead to economic resiliency? While our research has shown a strong positive connection between the two, we are now investigating further why this connection exists. With the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we are exploring the following six hypotheses and will release new findings at the 67th Annual National Conference on Citizenship in Philadelphia on September 14th:
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