THE CIVIC ENGAGEMENT GAP – WHY SMART, OLD, WEALTHY PEOPLE ULTIMATELY MAKE COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY!

Community and economic developers take note, community demographics answer the plaguing question of why older, better educated and more wealthy folks always seem to be more involved in making local community decisions.

Like me, I suspect, you have the same reaction when first introduced to a local government council, planning commission or economic development agency board of directors – where are the younger folks?  It seems today that only folks aged 50-years or more get involved or actually serve as the “public” participants in community meetings.

Maybe there is an answer to this question.

Reading “Fault Lines in Our Democracy – Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States” a recently released study sponsored by the Educational Testing Services Center for Research on Human Capital and Education Research and Development provides some interesting research possibly answering this question. 

http://www.ets.org/s/fault_lines/18719_fault_lines_report_web.pdf

The author’s study of 2010 voting participation and their recent survey data finds the lack of civic knowledge has a direct impact on the likelihood of someone becoming engaged in civic activities.  Their research further found that individual civic engagement participation differs due to age, income and education attainment.

Simply stated, the likelihood of a person becoming engaged in a civic activity increases with their age, income and educational attainment.  The “oldest most highly educated  and highest-income group is nearly seven time more likely to become involved compared to low-income persons having high-school (or less) education.”  The “well-educated (bachelor’s degree or more) middle-aged folks are five times more likely to become involved when compared to high school (or less) educated persons”.

Thus – the “Civic Engagement Gap”.

There’s over an 80% chance that someone have a graduate degree aged 55-64 years with a household income of $100,000 can be enticed to become involved in civic activities.

It answers the question why smart, old wealthy folks determine the community economic development strategy.

So there we have it….the lack of civic knowledge and demographics today determines who most likely guides the formation of community economic development policy.

The authors provide some interesting thoughts on why participation is low for some populations groups:

1. Lack of civic education of our youth – the family, elementary, high and college driven education.

2. Lack of “role model” and mentorship by family members.

3. Difficulties in participation – meeting time commitment and committee functionality.

4. Lack of civic knowledge and understanding the degree of personal importance.

5. Lack of confidence in political leadership.

6. Personal frustration due to lack of successfully accomplishments.

7. Intergenerational biases.

8. Status quo bias of “in power leadership”.

9.  Lack of employer corporate civic engagement sponsorship.

10.  Disenchantment – dissatisfaction and alienation with government.

So what do we do about the lack of participation?   

For community economic developers their work programs will ultimately require more attention to selected constituent group participation, especially less educated and lower income group involvement.

How we elevate civic interest to increase participation rates will be challenging, time consuming and an extra cost burden to already limited resources, but necessary to assure  consensus agreement on the community economic development strategy.

We all know that preparation of the community and economic development strategy is a fundamental local government sponsored process that binds the community‘s civic and social fabric together and serves as a fundamental cornerstone of a strong community democracy that builds trust in government.

We also realize constituency involvement leads to implementation success.

I hold the opinion, that community economic development strategy must promote junior & senior school civic education improvements.

My personal involvement with community economic development strategic planning exercises with junior and senior high school students finds student leadership having great concern for the future of their community.

When given a chance to participate interesting results occur; one being reinforcement that the next generation of community leaders are “in the making” – serious and concerned – fully aware of their disenfranchised and alienated classmates who represent the future “civic engagement gap”

Today’s community economic development strategies need strong involvement of the youth of the community; participation urged on by parents and educators alike.

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