Generation Citizen’s work is based
on the Civic Engagement Gap
Our country currently suffers from a “Civic Engagement Gap.” Vast segments of the population, particularly low-income and minority Americans, currently either cannot or do not participate in the democratic process. This has particular consequences for our youth: the gap deprives students of opportunities to change their communities and their own lives for the better, while at the same time limiting the diversity of views our policymakers hear:
In the 2004 presidential election, Hispanics and Asians were one-third less likely to vote than whites,and people living on $15,000 or less were half as likely to vote as those living on over $75,000.
The poorest quintile of citizens – 60 million Americans – have little to no effect on their senators’ votes.
Students from wealthier families are twice as likely as students of average socio-economic status (SES) to report studying how laws are made or participate in service activities, and 150% more likely to participate in in-class debates.
Only 20% of all youth (18-29) voted in the 2010 midterm elections, comprising 10% of the total electorate – even though such voters comprise roughly 25% of the American population.
Low-income, less educated, and minority individuals are under-represented in the political process. At the same time, the Americans who have the least access to employment, education, health care, and housing opportunities are often the least likely to participate in the political process. Generation Citizen exists to change this vicious cycle. We must ensure that every young person has the knowledge and skills they need to participate as active citizens in our democracy.
Schools alone cannot remedy America’s complex social, racial, and economic inequities. But our schools do have a vital civic mission: the creation of informed and engaged democratic citizens – citizens who will take up those tasks and effect change in their communities.
Effectively engaging youth in the political process, especially utilizing an action civics approach, is a powerful experience: it gives students a sense of agency and teaches them how to effect change on issues that they care about. Research indicates that effective civic engagement can lead not only to improved academic achievement, but can also significantly increase the odds of college graduation.
Unfortunately, students in low-income schools are far likelier to experience heavily fact-based civics courses with “little or no effect on the vast majority of students.” Wealthier, white students, by contrast, benefit from an array of civic learning and engagement opportunities, both in and out of school. These students are twice as likely as those of average socioeconomic status to study the legislative process or participate in service activities, and 150% more likely to do in-class debates. These are the very sorts of activities that boost civic learning and participation. The best way to learn civics is by doing civics.
A country in which vast segments of the population either cannot or do not participate in the political process does not properly adhere to the tenets of representative democracy. Educators and policymakers thus need a fresh approach to ensure not just that civics is taught, but that it is taught well – through action – to the populations who need it most. It will benefit our students, and it will benefit our society.