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Protect the Civic Legacy of Serve America Act | Commentary

Few of us knew five years ago, when President Barack Obama signed the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, that the civic data collection prompted by the Act would bolster intense interest in states and communities about our country’s civic health and how to improve it.

The main goal of the Act was to expand national service and volunteering with hundreds of thousands of positions. Like so many other pieces of recent legislation, it has been a tough road to hoe. Although the Obama Administration has been innovative in sparking governmental departments and agencies to provide young people with opportunities to serve, AmeriCorps has been flat-lining ever since President George W. Bush increased that program by 50 percent. Many programs — like Learn and Serve America and Senior Corps — were eliminated or experienced deep cuts by Congress due to budget constraints. And, yet, hidden within the Act was something that has shown itself to be a success — the collection of data measuring civic life in America.

For much of American history, we had been flying blind in terms of understanding our civic strengths and weaknesses. After 9/11, President Bush began to remedy this by putting in place an annual volunteering survey. It showed that volunteering experienced significant growth after 9/11 and through 2005. Rates have leveled out ever since. The Serve America Act took a second major step by making the collection of volunteering and civic health data a permanent national priority. The goal was to give states and communities the tools to innovate new ways of increasing civic engagement.

Together, the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Conference on Citizenship, and the Corporation for National and Community Service now reach 100,000 Americans each year with critical questions about the quality of their civic life. This extensive outreach is accomplished by adding a few additional questions to two monthly current population surveys — the same system that collects our critical jobs data. The result is the most comprehensive and detailed picture of civic life in America. This impressive data set is being leveraged by community leaders, academics, and policy makers alike.

From both a policymaking and a societal perspective, failure to track civic data is dangerous. Civic health is essential to our communities and our country. As leading thinkers like Robert Putnam and others have shown, the trust we have in our neighbors and institutions, and our willingness to volunteer, join community groups, and vote are tied directly to our physical, social, and even economic health.

For example, data shows that states with strong civic health have lower unemployment rates. In 2010 the 10 states that ranked highest in terms of social cohesion and nonprofit density had a 6.5 percent unemployment rate, compared to 10.8 percent for the bottom ten. That’s an astounding 4 percent difference.

When it comes to our physical health, civic engagement has a significant impact too. For two decades, there has been an increasing body of research showing that volunteering — a key civic health indicator — provides health and social benefits to the volunteer. This includes lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than non-volunteers. By strengthening our civic life, we strengthen ourselves.

We know that data is often the first step to awareness and action. This has been the case in both Florida and Arizona.

For years, the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship was unable to overcome legislative gridlock to incorporate civics education into the state’s K-12 accountability system. Then the group shared civic health reports showing Florida’s low participation rankings to key leaders. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was so moved by the data that she provided compelling testimony to the state legislature about the urgency of the issue — leading to the passage of the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act.

The Center for the Future of Arizona used civic health data to set a goal of moving the state into the top ten on every civic indicator. From that arose “The 5 Communities Project” — a grant-making program to source citizen-driven ideas for cultivating civic life. Now, the Center is working with partners across the state in a non-partisan way to increase participation in local elections.

On this fifth anniversary of the Serve America Act, we know more about civic life in America and its benefits than ever before. Yet, the future of this low-cost, efficient, and highly leveraged program is in question. The data is being threatened by budget cuts, like so many other parts of the Act.

As the budget season moves forward, legislators and the Administration should remember that this data collection is enabling a nationwide movement to increase trust among neighbors, volunteering in our communities, and engagement with our government. Let us all ensure that we continue to measure civic life in America. It is the first step to increasing it. And, that increase is the solution to many of our country’s most fundamental challenges.

Ilir Zherka is the Executive Director of the National Conference on Citizenship and a former appointee of the Clinton Administration. John Bridgeland is CEO at Civic Enterprises and a former White House appointee in both the Bush and Obama Administrations.

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