A Civic Health Checkup

09/22/2010 01:47 pm 13:47:37 | Updated May 25, 2011

America's economic shockwaves continue to lead to more joblessness, poverty, and fear. Concerns of a double-dip recession deepen worries that the financial trauma is here to stay. Amidst all this economic anxiety is a silver lining -- a new report released today by the Corporation for National Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship shows that America's commitment to civic life remains strong.

In these tough economic times, Americans are nevertheless rolling up their sleeves, gathering with neighbors and family, and helping to solve problems in their communities. In each of 2008 and 2009, nearly six out of ten Americans reached out to help their neighbors at least once a month and nearly one in five did so every day. Ironically, there is a greater sense of isolation in America's cities, with neighbors doing more in rural areas to help one another than they do in our urban centers. Earlier surveys told us that those with the least means were doing the most when it comes to providing shelter and food to those most in need.

Family dinners remain a sacred American rite with nearly 9 out of 10 Americans sitting down for family dinners several times each week. This is good news, given that research shows that family dinners boost the health and well being of children, and these close ties provide opportunities to discuss current events and our obligations as citizens to participate in our communities.

One topic of conversation at the family dinner table might be getting a good education, not only for economic reasons, but also for civic ones. College graduates dominate civic life, while high school dropouts are almost completely missing from it. Those who get a bachelor's degree are nearly five times more likely to volunteer as high school dropouts. Even getting just a high school diploma makes it twice as likely that a person will vote or belong to a group and three times as likely that a person will volunteer or work with neighbors to solve problems than those who never walked the graduation line.

Our recent 9/11 reflections remind us of the outpouring of volunteers who not only served for months after that tragic day, but continued to show American compassion through the end of 2005, when the rates of volunteering peaked. After a drop in the last few years, volunteering rates showed a strong increase between 2008 and 2009, but still remain lower than the levels from 2001 to 2005, encouraging another president to re-issue a timeless call to service that should always echo throughout American history. Boomers, not Millennials, are setting the civic pace, leading all other generations in every civic activity we have measured except voting, where those over 65 are the most engaged. Encouragingly, Millennials are volunteering at higher rates than Boomers did when they were the same age, and have found new avenues for engagement online. The long-term impact of online engagement has been questioned in recent years, but our study shows that those who connect online are more involved offline as well.

Despite the Internet age, nearly 9 out of 10 Americans frequently get their news from television or television websites, more than two-thirds from newspapers or newspaper websites and more than half from radio or their websites. Fewer than two in ten frequently get their news solely from other Internet sources, such as blogs.

The backbone of America has always been the degree to which citizens of all backgrounds, races, religious beliefs and economic stations participate in improving our communities and country. At a stressful time when the economy is faltering, debates around a mosque at Ground Zero are dividing us, political polarization is reaching a new height, and a fiscal crisis is looming on the horizon, we can rest assured that America's fundamental civic core remains strong and vibrant even in these tumultuous times.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and David Smith is Executive Director of the National Conference on Citizenship, which released the civic health survey today at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.