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Peter Levine Headshot

Taking the President Seriously About Citizenship

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President Obama ended his Democratic Convention speech on the theme of active citizenship. "As citizens," he said, "we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government."

The president's talk of active citizenship should not have surprised anyone, since he spoke about it frequently and extensively during his first presidential campaign. It was the main theme of his Springfield speech announcing his candidacy in 2007, an important note in his Grant Park speech on Election Night 2008, and a recurrent topic throughout the campaign.

Mr. Obama's talk of citizenship usually draws applause and cheers, as it did when he accepted the Democratic nomination in Charlotte. But pundits and policymakers never pay attention to it. They regard talk of citizenship as a politician's cliché -- like saying you are delighted to be in New Hampshire in January. The only question reporters asked about the Charlotte speech was whether it had fallen flat or done the job. Nobody wrote about the substance of the citizenship idea.

I see two reasons for their lack of interest: pundits doubt that active citizenship has important consequences, and they don't see its relevance to policy.

Scholars who empirically study the consequences of civic engagement can demonstrate that it has important consequences. For example, my colleagues and I helped write a report released last week by the National Conference on Citizenship that shows that civic engagement affects the unemployment rate. For that report, we investigated the relationship between civic health and unemployment in all 50 states, 942 metro areas, and more than 3,100 counties. We found that communities with more civic engagement in 2006 suffered less from unemployment during and after the Great Recession, even when other possible explanations were factored in.

Nonprofit organizations, driven by volunteers and charitable contributions, played an important role. According to our analysis, if a county had one extra nonprofit for every 1,000 residents in 2005, and everything else were held constant, the county would have half a percentage point less unemployment by 2009.

An individual who was employed in 2008 was twice as likely to become unemployed if he or she lived in a community with few nonprofit organizations (the bottom 5 percent in nonprofit density) rather than one with in the top 5 percent for nonprofit density, even if the two communities were otherwise similar. It is not just that nonprofits employ people; they also seem to strengthen the economic performance of their whole communities.

We found that not all nonprofits mattered equally. Fraternal organizations and unions that convene their members for local meetings, sports organizations that hold athletics events, and service providers that directly assist local people all seemed to help, whereas "mailing-list" organizations whose members just contribute checks did not seem to matter for unemployment.

We also found that it mattered whether residents socialize, communicate, and collaborate with one another. In 2006, the states with the highest and lowest levels of "social cohesion" (informal socializing and collaboration) had virtually identical unemployment rates of around 4.5 percent. But by 2010, their unemployment rates were significantly different: states with high social cohesion had an average unemployment rate of 8 percent and states with low social cohesion had an average rate of 10 percent.

The effects of active citizenship on unemployment are just an example. Engaging as citizens has also been found to benefit people's psychological well-being and health and to strengthen schools and other organizations.

In short, active citizenship really matters. But what does that mean for policy? The answer was clear during the New Deal, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt framed federal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration as opportunities for ordinary people to help rebuild the American Commonwealth, contributing their ideas and passions as well as their money.

The Obama stimulus package may have created some such opportunities, but the stimulus wasn't presented that way and it was not designed to maximize citizen engagement. The president signed bipartisan legislation to expand AmeriCorps, but it remains a tiny program. Federal policy continues to neglect civic education, and the civics courses that young people take are rarely about learning to participate in civil society.

President Obama deservedly wins some citizens' applause for his citizenship theme. Pundits may have underestimated his Charlotte speech because they overlooked the resonance of that idea for people who are discouraged by our fraying civic fabric. But so far, the Obama administration has been much better at talking about citizenship than actually encouraging it. If the president takes concrete steps to boost civic participation, even pundits may start paying attention.