State's Civic Health on Life Support

The political climate in Illinois is nothing less than a national embarrassment. Last January, we impeached and removed our sitting governor from office. Come next June, he will face trial on charges that will likely lead to imprisonment, making him the fourth of the last seven Illinois governors to go from the executive mansion to the jailhouse. Our state faces a $10 billion structural deficit, and generations have grown up alongside a pay-to-play culture perpetuated by systemic corruption. It therefore comes as little surprise that our citizens look elsewhere for political leadership or withdraw from the public arena altogether. A new report released today by the National Conference on Citizenship confirms these ugly facts.

The NCOC has published the National Civic Health Index since 2006, and began releasing select state supplements last year in Florida, Ohio and California. Today, with funding from the McCormick Foundation and the skill and expertise of the Freedom Project, the NCOC releases its first Illinois Civic Health Index.

Among the lowlights:

  • Trust in Illinois state government is at a serious low. Only 15 percent of Illinoisans said they believed the state government did the right thing most of the time, compared to 27 percent nationally.
  • Illinoisans have been cutting back on civic engagement for years, and at a faster pace than the rest of the country. In 2006, state residents were more likely to volunteer than the national average. These trends flipped to less likely in 2009, with 24.9 percent volunteering statewide, and 26.5 percent nationally. From 2003 to 2006 alone, there was a 22 percent reduction in Illinoisans' volunteer hours.
  • In 2009, state residents cut back volunteering by 76 percent, higher than the 72 percent national average.
  • Illinois Millennials (ages 15-29) also showed lower levels of engagement than their national peers: 77 percent revealed cutbacks since 2008 as opposed to 71 percent nationally.
  • Not only do Illinois Millennials volunteer at a lower rate than their generational cohorts (39 percent), Gen-Xers (47 percent) and Seniors (48 percent), they also trail their peers nationally.
  • In fact, Millennials lead the way in terms of volunteerism nationally (43 percent participation).

At play are dual forces that are catastrophic for citizens of the Land of Lincoln. One, the deepest recession in a generation has forced Americans to focus inward, and Illinois has been disproportionally affected by these devastating economic forces. Two, endemic corruption punctuated by scandals at all levels of government in Illinois have bred apathy and widespread disengagement. Why participate in a system fixed for the powerful few?

This pile of depressing information considered, there were a few bright spots that emerged from the gloomy data. While citizens have lost faith in Springfield, they are willing to ask Washington to rectify our civic health deficit.

  • 75 percent of Illinoisans support a policy that would require all state high school students to complete community service.
  • 72 percent endorse a requirement for all high school students to pass a new government or civics test.
  • 89 percent back a proposal to provide college tuition assistance for service.

I might humbly suggest that the answer to our deficit lies closer to home. The obvious policy solutions have already been pursued, some of them enacted, and others on the verge. They include greater transparency in the business of state government, a strengthened Freedom of Information Act, and campaign finance reform, but are by no means a panacea. We must also find a way to bring young people back into the system, and a renewed commitment to civic education is the preferred course.

The Illinois Civic Blueprint, a product of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the Freedom Project, provides a framework to restore of state's schools to their original purpose: to prepare young people for their roles as citizens in self-government. It marries civic education providers with school districts across the state, offering professional development for teachers and civic learning opportunities for students. It features schools across the state who are already leading the way. It puts forth a process, a "civic audit," by which school teams can assess the degree to which civics is incorporated across the curriculum based on six promising approaches, identifying deficiencies along the way and providing the resources to rectify them. Finally, it elevates exemplary institutions with "Democracy School" recognition.

The question to Illinois citizens and their elected officials is this: Are you sick and tired of the morass that has blanketed this formerly proud state on account of leaders who have continually failed and flouted the public trust? We provide the answers today when we encounter these grim details, tomorrow when we take civic action, and next year when we flock to the polls, and I am hopeful that the next measurement of our civic health is the first indicator of a welcome and long-awaited renewal.