Civic Empowerment Gap

The term civic empowerment gap refers to pervasive inequalities in the five domains of civic and political knowledge, skills, attitudes, participation, and impact among citizens from different demographic groups. Wealthier, more highly educated, white US citizens are far more civically and politically empowered than are lower-income, less-well-educated US citizens of color. Meira Levinson coined the term in her 2012 book No Citizen Left Behind in order to argue that the civic empowerment gap violates fundamental American ideals of democracy and equality. The gap is not a “natural” phenomenon that inheres in race or class; rather, it can be overcome through changes in public policy, civil society, and education. This is also the case with the closely related academic achievement gap that exists between upper- and lower-income groups and ethnic groups.


Civic and political knowledge and skills are important because they correlate directly with the quantity and quality of individuals' public participation. People with such knowledge and skills tend to become more involved, are more likely to embrace democratic values, and, because they know what they are working toward as well as why and how, are likely to be more effective at achieving their goals.

Levels of civic knowledge and skills among both youths and adults however, are highly stratified by income, education, and race and ethnicity. On the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics Assessment, for example, poor white fourth and eighth graders had greater civic knowledge and skills on average than middle-class and wealthy black and Hispanic students did. These results are replicated in other state, national, and international tests. Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter show similar gaps among adults: they report that in their 1989 Survey of Political Knowledge, “in no case was the percentage [of correct answers to survey questions] for blacks as high as for whites or for low-income citizens as high as that for upperincome ones” ( 1996, 157 ). In Voice and Equality, Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry Brady ( 1995

US participation rates in different civic activities, as measured by educational background, income, and race/ethnicity, 2012–2013.

US participation rates in different civic activities, as measured by educational background, income, and race/ethnicity, 2012–2013.
Source: Calculated from US Census Bureau 2014, Tables 2.2–2.6, 4b, 5.1–5.2, 7, 11; Smith 2013; US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014. TABLE BY LUMINA DATAMATICS LTD. © 2015 CENGAGE LEARNING®


Civic and political attitudes are somewhat harder to compare directly in order to assess a “gap,” as there are good reasons for attitudinal divergences between members of different groups. Given the disproportionate civic and political power enjoyed by very wealthy, highly educated citizens, it is reasonable for less-privileged citizens to feel less confident about their civic capacities. Members of historically marginalized communities also have significantly lower levels of social trust in others, political trust in government, beliefs in their own efficacy to make civic and political change, and senses of civic duty and identity.

Nonetheless, these differences are rightly a matter of some concern because they strongly predict individuals' likelihood of getting involved in civic and political life. After all, if one does not believe that one's actions are likely to make a difference, there is no reason to act. Similarly, citizens are more likely to vote if they feel a duty to do so than if they do not. There are some mitigating attitudinal differences, especially among black Americans, for whom a sense of racial solidarity and collective obligation, rather than civic trust, are highly inspiring toward civic and political action. But attitudinal differences still exacerbate the civic empowerment gap.


The most significant features of the civic empowerment gap are the yawning chasm in civic and political participation and impact. Table 1 shows participatory gaps by education, income, and race and ethnicity in activities as disparate as voting, volunteering, taking political action, and communicating one's opinions to others. These data show that in virtually every domain of engagement, college graduates were more than twice as likely to have participated than high school dropouts; solidly middle-class citizens were nearly 50 percent more likely to participate than poor citizens; and Asian and Hispanic citizens were less likely to participate than black and white citizens.

Public officials respond to those who participate more frequently, and especially to those who can magnify their voice to a “roar” ( Jacobs and Skocpol 2005, 1 ) by funding sustained lobbying and media advocacy efforts, grassroots mobilization, and campaign contributions ( Nownes 2013 ). Larry M. Bartels ( 2005 Open Secrets Communications 2014 ); over 90 percent had at least a bachelor's degree; and only 18 percent were nonwhite ( Manning 2014 ).


Political scientists have known for decades about the demographic inequalities of citizens' civic and political knowledge, skills, participation, and influence. By framing these inequalities as a civic empowerment gap, however, Levinson seeks to emphasize the illegitimate and undemocratic nature of these inequities, and in so doing to push for the identification of interventions that might help close or eliminate the gap.

In this respect, the language of the civic empowerment gap intentionally evokes the academic achievement gap. For most of the twentieth century, academic disparities had been treated as natural differences that inhered in students and their parents, rather than as social constructions that were created by public policies and educational practices, in addition to community support. In the twenty-first century, the academic achievement gap has been recognized as a systemic policy failure. In response, federal No Child Left Behind legislation mandates that educators, administrators, and policy makers be held accountable for closing the academic achievement gap for students. Levinson plays on this idea in No Citizen Left Behind by arguing that not only students and parents but schools and the nation should be held “to account” for “achieving civic outcomes for all children that are as high quality as the academic outcomes we now claim to expect” (48).


The civic empowerment gap is created and perpetuated by numerous factors; no single intervention will eliminate this gap. Nonetheless, there are some clear actions that can be taken to reduce it.

First, overall reductions in social and economic inequality can help shrink the incidence and impact of the civic empowerment gap. Historically, the middle class has been a seedbed of engaged citizens. College graduates also tend to be highly engaged. Economic policies that widen the middle class and broaden college access create positive signals, opportunities, and resources for civic empowerment. Second, money's impact on US politics must be addressed. As noted earlier, those who are elected to public office, and those who are able to influence legislative and policy agendas, have disproportionately high levels of wealth. A partial solution would be a legislative ban or limitation on private expenditures in electoral campaigns. However, the courts are understandably disinclined to uphold such policies on the grounds that limiting the power to spend is a limit on the freedom to advocate. Also, many of the features of successful contemporary civic and political movements— including sophisticated media campaigns, ground-level mobilization efforts, lobbying, and full-time involvement in both state-level and federal initiatives—will continue to cost significant money regardless of campaign finance reforms. One of the greatest challenges facing American democracy is how to overcome this distorting effect of money on politics, and to empower the advocacy of those who individually lack sufficient campaign funds and capabilities but who have numbers on their side.

Third, unions, religious organizations, neighborhood and fraternal associations, and other voluntary organizations within civil society need strengthening. These institutions create a “civic ecology” ( Levinson 2012b, 251 ) in which Americans have historically learned much of the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and habits of citizenship. Unfortunately, however, because of what Peter Levine ( 2012 ) describes as “the parlous [perilous] state of civil society” (46), these organizations are decreasing in size, number, and reach. As important, the roles of ordinary people in these organizations have shifted from members and officers to volunteers led by professional staff ( Skocpol 2003 ). Scholzman, Verba, and Brady show that they also now disproportionately serve more privileged members of the population.

Fourth, tackling the civic empowerment gap requires strengthening civics instruction, especially in public schools that reach roughly 90 percent of students in the United States. Prior to the 1970s students on average took three civics courses. Many states now require only one twelfth-grade course in US government (for a semester, not a year). By this time many of those at the bottom of the civic empowerment gap have already dropped out. Schools must therefore start civics instruction earlier and sequence it more frequently. They must also increase the quality of civic learning opportunities. Students are more likely to become empowered as citizens when they have the opportunity to practice being citizens. These opportunities include simulations, mock trials, debates, discussions, internships, student government, democratic school climates, and other forms of “action civics” ( Levinson 2012a, ch. 6 ). History teachers also can help close the civic empowerment gap if they teach about individual and collective agency in the ongoing struggle for justice; this is especially important for low-income students of color.

SEE ALSO Civic Education Civic Health Index .


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Choma, Russ. “Millionaires' Club: For First Time, Most Lawmakers are Worth $1 Million-Plus.” Center for Responsive Politics. January 9, 2014. .

Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Scott Keeter. What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Jacobs, Lawrence R., and Theda Skocpol, eds. Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005.

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Skocpol, Theda. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

Smith, Aaron. “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age.” Pew Research Internet Project. April 25, 2013. .

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Volunteering in the United States—2013.” Report USDL-14-0314. Washington, DC: US Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2014. .

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Verba, Sidney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry Brady. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Meira Levinson
Graduate School of Education Harvard University