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How Civic Engagement Builds Resilient Communities

by Kristen Cambell   •  

The National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) and Opportunity Nation share a belief that our communities are stronger when everyone has the opportunity to contribute. The Opportunity Index, the first statistical measure of access to the American Dream, is an important evidence-based tool supporting this approach. It provides a holistic view of a community’s economic, social and civic strengths and allows communities to identify areas for improvement and measure progress over time.

The Index draws upon key measures of civic life such as volunteerism and group membership. These are central components of the Civic Health Index first developed by NCoC in 2006. At that time, a group of civic researchers and practitioners, alongside social and political scientists, realized there was little information about the civic vitality of our communities. This was a significant problem. Lack of information meant a lack of ability to fully measure, understand and shape the ways our communities and democracy function.

NCoC began convening a working group comprised of leading thinkers in the field. Indicators were developed to measure actions and behaviors such voting and volunteering as well as how Americans connect with families, friends, neighbors and local institutions.  

Since then, the National Conference on Citizenship has worked with the US Census Bureau and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to ensure these indicators are collected each year through the Census Current Population Survey. Much like Opportunity Nation, we use this data to inform a nationwide dialogue about the civic health of our communities. We then work with local organizations to use the data to drive policy, investments and strategic initiatives.

The Opportunity Index reinforces what National Conference on Citizenship has discovered through our own research: communities where individuals are engaged are more resilient and stronger economically.  Communities with higher rates of civic engagement—such as residents who attend meetings, help their neighbors, register to vote and volunteer — experienced lower increases in unemployment during the Great Recession. Simply put, civic health can provide a powerful buffer to better weather times of crisis.

Research from our partners at CNCS and other scholars has reinforced that civic health is directly tied to economic mobility. A recent Harvard study demonstrated that income mobility is higher in communities with higher levels of civic engagement. New research from CNCS shows that volunteering boosts confidence and expands social and professional networks, increasing the likelihood of finding employment for all volunteers regardless of a person’s gender, age, ethnicity, geographic area or the job market. You can learn more about these studies by reading NCoC’s literature review here.

The National Conference on Citizenship is proud to partner with Opportunity Nation in advancing the dialogue about what makes us a stronger nation. We hope our data and the Opportunity Index help to ensure that every American has the opportunity to create and live in stronger and more connected communities.

Kristen Cambell

Chief Program Officer, National Conference on Citizenship

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