Earlier this month, Peter Levine testified about the connection between civic health and unemployment before the National Academy of Science’s Committee on National Statistics.

His testimony comes on the heels of the recent Civic Health and Unemployment study conducted by CIRCLE in conjunction with National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), Civic Enterprises and Harvard’s Saguaro Seminar.

The study found that five forms of civic engagement – attending meetings, helping neighbors, registering to vote, volunteering, and voting – help protect against unemployment at the state and city level and contribute to overall economic resilience.

As CIRCLE Director Peter Levine summarized in the Huffington Post:

Since 2006, unemployment has risen by 10 points in Nevada but just one point in North Dakota. Such differences matter deeply for people’s lives, and we need to understand the underlying reasons.

The obvious place to look is economic conditions. A Goldman Sachs study in August 2011 found that the only economic factors that mattered were the extent of the housing bubble (more was worse), the size of the state’s oil and gas industry (more was better), and the proportion of its workforce in high-skilled professional jobs (higher was better).

My colleagues and I are concerned about civic engagement: voting, volunteering, belonging to and leading groups, attending meetings, and working with fellow citizens to address problems. Those activities are now measured annually by the federal Current Population Survey. So we included them in a statistical model along with eight major economic factors to see what explained changes in unemployment [in all states and in many metro areas].

We found that the civic measures were strongly related to changes in employment from 2006-2010, but none of the economic factors, such as those evaluated by the Goldman Sachs study, were associated with employment to a statistically significant degree. … In short, the more civic engagement, the less unemployment.

Since the study’s release, it has continued to garner national interest.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Senator Bob Graham made these findings the theme of a joint op-ed in USA Today last November.

In the coming year, NCoC will make the economic effects of civic engagement its major focus. Thanks to support from the Knight Foundation CIRCLE will work with NCoC to produce a comprehensive literature review of this topic.

CIRCLE will analyze the connections between the Knight Foundation’s national “Soul of the Community survey,” which explored people’s attachment to their communities, and the civic health indicators that CIRCLE investigated last year. The goal will be to explore how community attachment, civic engagement and economic vitality are interwoven and to explore reasons why these connections exist.

Working with NCoC and other partners, CIRCLE will investigate several hypotheses about the civic and economic vitality connection and further engage in a dialogue about possible explanations.


 Tisch College’s CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement) is the leading source of authoritative research on civic and political engagement of Americans between the ages of 15 and 25.

Originally published March 2012