The events of the past year — including the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and the insurrection in the Capitol — have shown our nation what happens when we don't address civic challenges or risk factors.
Similar to a dry forest that can become inflamed by a tiny spark, when we don't pay attention to threats to our civic health, one incident can set off a series of chain reactions. For instance, the public's lack of trust in government has contributed to prolonging the pandemic in multiple ways, including people's unwillingness to wear face masks or become vaccinated.
When our civic health is strong, communities are less polarized and people are physically healthier, safer and more resilient in times of crisis. Understanding what makes civic health function well or poorly is critical to supporting a strong and functioning democracy.
How do we measure civic health? Multiple factors facilitate healthy or unhealthy civic life – including whether people vote, talk with their neighbors and trust their government. Why are some communities close-knit, while in others people barely talk with each other? Or why do some communities react to crises well, with droves of people helping deal with tragedies or natural disasters, while others lack the "people power" and networks to respond effectively?
My organization explores how to measure these things. Similar to check-ups at the doctor's office, regular "civic health" assessments are essential. By collecting data in a geographic area, we can better understand civic assets, risk factors and what we can do about them.
The predominant way civic health is currently measured is using data from the Current Population Survey, a monthly Census Bureau poll of about 60,000 households. The National Conference on Citizenship currently works with states across the country to create "civic health indexes," pulling data summaries from the civic engagement and voting supplements of the survey.
But the Census Bureau data is limited in measuring civic health in three important ways.
It provides a state-level picture only, so it's not possible to compare what's happening in different parts of a single state. While the survey measures civic actions such as voting or volunteering, it doesn't gauge attitudes and feelings, such as trust in government or whether people feel they matter to others in their community. And while the poll asks about civic actions ("Do you read the news?") it doesn't provide information about the civic life in their community ("My local council gives me a meaningful say in decisions that affect me.")
Civic health outcomes are affected by a community's "civic infrastructure" — the laws, processes, institutions and associations that support opportunities for people to connect, solve problems, make decisions and celebrate community. This can include such diverse things as welcoming public spaces, grassroots groups like neighborhood associations and racial equity training for public officials.
We often incorporate this idea in our research. For example, we helped folks in six states by examining the local and state civic infrastructure before they started trying to improve civic health.