Civic Involvement Tied to Education

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

High school dropouts are significantly less likely than better-educated Americans to vote, trust government, do volunteer work, or go to church, according to a new report that reveals a widening gap in "civic health" between the nation's upper and lower classes.

The report, a portrait of civic life in the United States, finds that Americans' disengagement from their communities during the past few decades has been particularly dramatic among adults who have the least education. Among people who lack a high school diploma, the percentage who have voted plummeted from 1976 to 2004 to 31 percent -- half the 62 percent of college graduates who voted in 2004.

The class divide is the most striking finding of the report, prepared by leading social scientists and released yesterday by the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonprofit organization created by Congress. "High school dropouts are . . . nearly voiceless in a system that fails them," said John Bridgeland, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bush who is chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises and leads the conference's advisory board.

Compiled from several national surveys since the mid-1970s, including some that have not been made public before, the report is an attempt to draw attention of the public and policymakers to civic life, in the same way that economic indicators routinely are used to shape the government's economic policy. It examines 40 indicators of nine basic aspects of civic life, including how much people say they trust one another, stay informed, follow the news and express their political views.

Overall, the findings of "Broken Engagement, America's Civic Health Index" reinforce earlier studies that have shown steep declines in civic participation. "The most hopeful signs," the report says, are a recent increase in volunteering, particularly among young people, and an upturn in political involvement since the late 1990s.

Still, it says, the trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and, more recently, Hurricane Katrina, have not been catalysts for "the deeper civic transformation for which many had hoped."

Yesterday, at a Washington conference to recognize Citizenship Day, a panel of scholars and policy specialists gave a sober view even of such promising signs as the increased volunteer service among people ages 18 to 25. "We have to be a little careful about celebrating this young generation. This is mostly an upper-middle-class phenomenon," said Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard University government professor whose 2000 book, "Bowling Alone," documented the decline in civic participation. "If we continue to have a substantial and growing gap between people coming out of the middle class and people coming out of the lower class, we are going to be in a serious pickle in civic terms."

Putnam said the reasons behind the civic drop-off among people with little income or education are not well understood. He speculated that it could result from the increasing instability of the working class, which he said has caused children to grow up with parents who have less steady jobs and marriages. He said the change also could stem from the weakening of trade unions and other institutions that used to unify working-class people, or by an agenda of political issues that appeals mainly to the upper classes.

William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said, "An increase in income inequality is going to produce an increased gap in civic participation" because more affluent people tend to be most engaged in their communities. Galston said low-income people also could be reacting to "the standard view that neither political party has done much" to help them.

Peter Levine, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which helped compile the data, said the gap among the social classes exists in almost all 40 indicators of civic engagement included in the report. Levine said the data show that such differences are not associated with people's race or ethnicity.

For instance, nearly half the adults with a college degree said they had attended a community program last year, compared with fewer than one in five high school dropouts. Similarly, 60 percent of the college graduates said they believe people are honest, compared with 44 percent of the dropouts.

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