Civic health, as measured by indicators of social capital and civic engagement, is critical to individual, community, and national well-being. In 1953 Congress chartered the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) to promote civic life in America. The Civic Health Index (CHI), a national effort led by NCoC, works to better understand, measure, and strengthen the civic health of communities.
Civic health encompasses a wide range of components of social capital, social cohesion, and civic engagement. Each of these components has an impact at the individual and community levels. To study the measurement of civic health, the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT), established by the National Academies, created the Panel on Measuring Social and Civic Engagement and Social Cohesion in Surveys. In a 2014 report, Civic Engagement and Social Cohesion, the panel offers the following descriptions of the key components of civic health: (1) Civic engagement: Quoting Thomas Ehrlich ( 2000 ), the panel defines this term as “individual activities oriented toward making ‘a difference in the civic life of … communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes” ‘ ( 2014, 2–3 ). (2) Social cohesion: This term refers to “the extent to which groups—from communities to nations—are bound together by harmonious relations, work together, and feel obligated to act toward common purpose” ( 2014, 23 2014, 43 ).
The benefits of social capital and civic engagement in America have been widely documented since Alexis de Tocqueville's observations in Democracy in America ( published in 1835 and 1840 ) of the importance of associational life to American democracy. Studies across academic disciplines demonstrate that when social capital and civic engagement thrive, information flows more freely, public problems are more readily addressed, communities are stronger, economies are more resilient, and individuals have more access to employment, opportunity, and greater well-being.
Given the importance of these concepts and their relationship to a wide range of policy issues, researchers seek to assess the state of American civic life by engaging in ongoing and comprehensive data collection. Documenting a wide range of civic behaviors over time enables experts to assess shifts in trends, examine the nuances of participation in various communities, and ultimately evaluate whether efforts to strengthen civic health are effective. NCoC became a leader in this research endeavor. Having long convened thinkers and public servants around the exploration of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, the organization is committed to ensuring a more thoughtful, data-informed understanding of the nation's civic health.
In 2006, in partnership with scholars including Robert D. Putnam, Peter Levine, John Bridgeland, and William Galston, NCoC produced the first national CHI. The report drew on a set of existing, but limited, national studies to assess trends in civic life. The effort also built on the foundation provided by the Harvard Saguaro Seminar's study of social capital, among other efforts, and compiled a set of indicators that could be measured on an ongoing basis.
Civic health indicators measure a wide range of formal and informal behaviors. They include traditional measures of civic engagement such as voter participation, engaging with elected officials, discussing politics, and using purchasing power to express values. The indicators also include involvement in community life through charitable giving, volunteerism or participating in church groups, parent-teacher associations, and even sports teams. Indicators of civic health are evolving to capture new forms of engagement through use of technology, such as how often individuals express their political views online. The civic health indicators seek to capture a nuanced understanding of how our communities are networked, and include simple acts such as eating dinner with family, communicating with friends, or helping out a neighbor. They also explore the foundations for the motivation to engage by measuring neighborhood trust and confidence in institutions.
These indicators are the basis of an ongoing national civic health assessment effort that is codified into law. This assessment is conducted annually through a partnership between NCoC, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), and the US Census Bureau. Many of these indicators are now collected through the US Census Current Population Survey (CPS) Volunteering, Voting and Registration, and Civic Engagement Supplements, which provide rich and representative data across the country.
This national data has allowed civic leaders and institutions across the country to better understand and strengthen civic life. The data reveal new dimensions of civic health and its relationship to broader community and societal well-being. One such piece of research, Civic Health and Unemployment II: The Case Builds, has shown that, in terms of unemployment rates, communities with higher rates of social cohesion have fared significantly better during the severe economic recession that began in 2008. The study found that, by 2010, states with high social cohesion had unemployment rates two percentage points lower than those of their less connected counterparts, even when controlling for demographics and economic factors ( National Conference on Citizenship 2012, 4 ). This research suggests that simple actions such as talking with, helping, and trusting neighbors and communicating with family and friends contributed to essential economic resilience. Additional research produced by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment ( 2013 ), has shown that volunteers have a 27 percent higher likelihood of finding a job after being out of work than nonvolunteers.
As awareness of the critical importance of civic health grows, a complicated picture of civic life in America during the 2010s has emerged. There have been some distressing patterns as well as glimmers of hope. In 2013, according to data from the CPS Volunteering and Civic Engagement Supplements, only 10.8 percent of Americans contacted a public official, 8.3 percent participated in a public meeting, and 9.7 percent served in leadership positions in community organizations. Only 58.5 percent of Americans reported that they vote regularly (always or sometimes) in local elections. These statistics reflect substantial deficits in civic leadership and voice. Further, as noted in the Millennials Civic Health Index, years of data demonstrate significant gaps in civic opportunity, showing a divide in almost all measures of civic health along lines of educational attainment.
Despite these difficult realities, the data also reflect acts of service and engagement. In 2013, 62.5 percent of Americans exchanged favors with neighbors, by doing things like watching each other's children, helping to shop, or lending household items; 36.3 percent of Americans participated in community groups such as school, sports and recreational, religious, or other organizations; and 50.1 percent participated in charitable giving, donating $25 or more. Although these findings are illuminating, more can and should still be done to effectively capture the diverse ways Americans engage with one another informally and formally.
These national findings are also grounded in stateand city-level data, made possible by rigorous and ongoing data collection. Thirty states and cities nationwide have used localized civic data to shape policy, practice, and investments that can strengthen participation. For example, the Center for the Future of Arizona has used the data within a statewide citizens' agenda and to build a coalition of partners working to make civic engagement and community involvement a top priority for the state. The Florida Joint Center for Citizenship used civic data to illustrate the urgent need for civic education reform, helping to pass the Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Civics Education Act. Kentucky's secretary of state embraced her state's CHI, conducting a statewide series of roundtable discussions about the report and developing an action plan based on these discussions. In Connecticut, the Civic Health Advisory Group composed of active cross-sector leaders and led by Everyday Democracy, has worked to advance civic strategies and priorities. All of these efforts were sparked by the sense of urgency, and the objective clarity, that civic data provides.
Civic health data is providing institutions with a blueprint needed to build a more vibrant civic infrastructure across the country. This effort provides the foundation on which stronger civic health, and a stronger nation, can be built.
SEE ALSO Bowling Alone ; Civic Dispositions ; Civic Duty ; Civic Engagement ; Civic Participation ; Civic Responsibility ; Republican Virtue .
Civic Engagement and Social Cohesion: Measuring Dimensions of Social Capital to Inform Policy. Edited by Kenneth Prewitt, Christopher D. Mackie, and Hermann Habermann. Panel on Measuring Social and Civic Engagement and Social Cohesion in Surveys; Committee on National Statistics; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=18831 .
Corporation for National and Community Service. “Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment.” 2013. http://www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/upload/employment_research_report.pdf .
Ehrlich, Thomas, ed. Preface. In Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Westport, CT: Oryx Press, 2000.
Harvard Kennedy School. Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America. 2014. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/saguaro/ .
National Conference on Citizenship. “America's Civic Health Index: Broken Engagement.” 2006. http://www.ncoc.net/100 .
National Conference on Citizenship. “Civic Health and Unemployment II: The Case Builds.” 2012. http://www.ncoc.net/unemployment2 .
National Conference on Citizenship. “Civic Health and the Economy: Making the Connection.” 2013. http://www.ncoc.net/economy .
National Conference on Citizenship. “Millennials Civic Health Index.” 2013. http://www.ncoc.net/MillennialsCHI .
National Conference on Citizenship. “Volunteering and Civic Life in America 2014.” Based Upon Analysis of Data from the 2013 US Census Current Population Survey Volunteering and Civic Engagement Supplements. http://www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/ .
Putnam, Robert, D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. (1835, 1840.) Democracy in America. Edited and translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC)