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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Brandon Danz
October 7, 2014
Perform an Internet search for “civics” and you’re likely to find dozens of articles and webpages asking if you can name a signer of the federalist papers, or the current justices of the Supreme Court or the name of the governor of your state. Bonus question – what is the name of the one person who could be a correct answer for all three of these questions at various points throughout his life? First person to email me the correct answer wins civics bragging rights and a mention in my next monthly column!
Many of these sites point to the fact that the average American cannot correctly answer these questions, which appear on the U.S. citizenship civics test. Jay Leno and other late night television show hosts have made Americans’ ignorance of civics into a comedy routine.
But it’s not funny. In fact, the implications of this are scary.
An Unaware Voting Public: Most citizens’ lack of understanding and appreciation of our nation’s government structure is revealing of a disengaged voting population. Each November, voters are responsible for assigning our nation’s fate to candidates running for offices which they know very little about. The principal-agent theory shows why ignorance on the part of the voters has major impact on efficient government operation. Principals (managers in the private sector or in this case, elected officials) have a duty to run a business (government) in a way that maximizes utility for the agents (stockholders or in this case, voters). The principal has access to much more information than the agent and can use that information to advance his self interest instead of advancing that which maximizes utility for his agents. Until voters, as agents of the federal government, become more engaged in our civic responsibilities, things like hyper-partisanship and gridlock will continue to go on unchecked.
In response to our nation’s ailing civic health, seven states are seeking legislative reforms that will require high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship civics test in order to graduate. While increased awareness is needed in schools, it is also needed in the home and in the workplace. To supplement the growing movement in schools, Americans should live their lives in ways that exude civic responsibility and lead by example.
Lead By Example. Volunteer for a Cause: Volunteerism is an important American tradition that does just this. Volunteering fulfills our civic obligation and is a respected tradition that unites us. Last year, over 62 million Americans clocked in almost 8 billion hours of volunteer work according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. America’s strong tradition of volunteerism continues to make us leaders among industrialized nations in our sense of civic duty to help others. Almost 280 years after Ben Franklin formed the first volunteer fire company in 1736, 71 percent of America’s fire companies are still run by volunteers. Public libraries still thrive and are successfully navigating the wave of the technological revolution due in large part to a strong volunteer base which keeps operating costs at a minimum. The same can be said of other industries, too. By volunteering, we demonstrate to our families, friends, neighbors and colleagues the important role that civics plays in our lives.
While the United States continues to be a leader in the international arena, our level of volunteerism has begun to slip in recent years. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics report referenced above comes with the caveat that the volunteer rate in 2013 was “the lowest it has been since the [Current Population Survey] supplement was first administered in 2002.” Unlike teaching civics in classrooms, volunteerism is more difficult to legislate and must instead come from our genuine want to give back to our communities.
Tom Baker is the chief community affairs officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh. He is also the author of “Get Involved!,” a series of books that challenge citizens to become more engaged in their communities. I sat down with Baker recently and asked him how we can inspire Americans to want to volunteer and fulfill their civic duties.
Q: So Tom, why are Americans volunteering less than they used to?
A: I don’t know if that’s true. I think we are using outdated means to measure volunteerism. The power of social media has made people feel connected to each other without having to leave their house. Where Americans previously went to events to show their support, they can now do so by clicking “like” or “share” and still gain that same sense of supporting a cause. It is difficult to measure the metrics of the effect social media has had on volunteering. Last month we saw ALS raise over $100 million after we dumped ice buckets over ourselves and uploaded videos on Facebook. To be clear, clicking “like” alone, is not volunteering. The challenge is for community organizations to capture the groundswell of all those “likes” and mobilize that into a grassroots volunteer movement.
Q: How do we encourage those who haven’t volunteered to try it out?
A: We are all busy, but it is important for us to make time to volunteer. Social circles – friends, neighbors, coworkers – have a big influence. Those of us who do volunteer should engage in positive peer pressure and invite our friends and family and colleagues to volunteer. At Big Brothers Big Sisters, we find it takes six to seven interactions with potential volunteers until they decide it’s a good fit. Keep at it. Encourage others to look back at what they enjoyed when they were young. Volunteering comes full circle when we give back to those organizations and causes that we have previously benefited from.
Being a civic-minded citizen and leading by example is easy! For volunteering opportunities and ideas in your community, check out these sites (and do more than “like” them!)
Volunteering In America: www.VolunteeringInAmerica.gov
Author: Brandon Danz, M.P.A., is special adviser to the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and an ASPA member. He is a graduate of the master of public administration program at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Danz is seeking a master of health administration degree from The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, with a focus on health care policy development and cost containment. Danz can be reached at [email protected].