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"That's Not Democracy": How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life

A major new CIRCLE report explores what stands in the way of non-college youth engaging in communities and how we can support them.

CIRCLE is releasing a major new study today, “That’s Not Democracy”: How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way. Many practitioners informed this project, which was in collaboration with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.

A vibrant and thriving democracy requires a deeply engaged and active citizenry. “Civic engagement” encompasses all the ways we identify and understand common problems in our communities, nation, and world. Robust civic engagement not only creates healthy societies; it benefits the individuals who engage, through the development of skills and knowledge, networks and relationships, and feelings of purpose and meaning.

However, survey data show that civic engagement is highly unequal among young Americans. One of the primary divisions is between young people who have ever attended college and those who dropped out of high school or did not continue their educations beyond high school (about 42 percent of the resident youth population in 2012).  National survey data show that a majority of non-college youth are basically disengaged from traditional civic life, with 37 percent completely disconnected, and only 13.5 percent engaged in forms of conventional civic leadership.

But standardized survey questions may not capture the contributions and opinions of poor and working-class youth, who may find words like volunteering and civic engagement inapplicable or confusing, even though they engage in their communities. Also, survey research is not ideal for determining why young people do or do not participate.

Thus we conducted semi-structured conversations with non-college youth to we explore why they do or do not participate. In all, we interviewed 121 non-college youth in 20 focus groups in 4 cities between fall 2008 and June 2010. Compared to the national population of non-college youth, participants in our study were much more likely to be urban and African American. Here are some of our findings:

  • Most participants saw concrete barriers to civic engagement. For example, they perceived that institutions did not want their engagement, that their communities provided few positive role models and that they lacked the money and connections to contribute.
  • Many participants believed they had skills to make a difference in their communities, but they lacked opportunities to use those skills.
  • Nevertheless, many participants served or helped other individuals in their own families and neighborhoods, although they did not think of these forms of helping behavior when asked about community-level change.
  • Participants were highly aware of social and political issues, concerned about them, and likely to discuss them critically in their own social networks, even if they did not see how they personally could address such issues.
  • A small minority of participants had been recruited into civic organizations, and they generally expressed strong support for these groups. Most other focus group members believed that such institutions were missing in their communities and reported never having been asked to participate.

Overall, this study finds that non-college young people lack organized and institutional opportunities to address large-scale social issues—reinforcing previous research. They often report helping individuals, and they discuss social issues in their own networks, but generally they do not connect these activities to making systemic or society-wide changes.

We offer insights into promising strategies for reengaging poor and working-class young adults. Many respondents expressed interest in education for younger people (most often their own children or siblings), including both K-12 schooling and community-based opportunities. Recruiting non-college youth into organizations that assist and improve education would be worthwhile. They felt that they owed the next generation help and guidance, and they personally valued making contributions. Opportunities to move from critical talk (which is common in their circles) to constructive collective action is the key to transforming both these individuals and their communities.

In addition, the new report offers:

  • An overview of national demographic and participation data for non-college youth
  • Findings from focus groups with a sub-set of non-college youth
  • Information about many of the leading organizations that civically engage non-college youth
  • Profiles of four organizations and their models for engaging and developing youth
  • Summary of other important research about what influences youth civic engagement and development
  • Recommendations for several constituencies, based on the above and conversations with stakeholders

Why “Non-College" Youth?

Studying the category defined as “non-college youth” is problematic for several reasons. First, this term is a negative definition, using a deficit as its basic criterion to describe people, even though they have knowledge, experience, and other assets.

We nevertheless see compelling reasons to focus on the non-college category. They are almost invisible in a society whose formal leaders and opinion makers usually hold college degrees. For example, reporters routinely equate college students with young people as a whole. College attendance is a powerful predictor of civic engagement, even when controlling for other factors. Finally, policies and strategies for engaging people in civic life must consider the institutions that can reach them.

Non-college young people are underrepresented in groups, meetings, projects, and elections. Their underrepresentation has grown more severe over the last four decades. Consequently, communities miss the potential contributions of large numbers of youth, and the youth miss opportunities to be nurtured and shaped into active citizens. Not only do they lose political influence and the capacity to improve their own communities, they miss the chance to develop the skills, relationships, and psychological benefits.

In fact, according to Nie, Junn, and Stehlik-Barry (1996, p. 31), the correlation between years of school and civic engagement is “the best documented finding in American political behavior research.”

This finding derives in large part from surveys of formal civic behavior. To examine this issue more fully, qualitative investigation is also important. Non-college youth might be engaged in ways that the standard surveys overlook. Also, it is not fully evident why years of formal education should predict civic engagement. That is not the case in other countries, such as India, where low-caste and poor citizens are more likely than middle-class citizens to vote (Pushpendra, 1999). Thus, it is important to find out more about the barriers to civic engagement for Americans who have fewer years of schooling and to look for alternate paths to being engaged that do not include college.

Recommendations for Stakeholders

Base on our conversations with the young people we spoke with for the report, we offer a series of recommendations for various stakeholders. Here's a summary:

Schools can:

  • Provide civic education opportunities for all youth, including interactive pedagogies, such as discussion
  • Provide opportunities to all youth to learn and practice skills like organizing, deliberation, and research
  • Bring current issues into the classroom and draw connections between course content and current issues
  • Engagement activities should be meaningful (teachers should, for instance, tell students why they are doing the activities they are doing) and empowering

Youth programs in schools and communities can:

  • Provide opportunities to draw connections between individually focused activities and broader social causes and issues
  • Draw connections between formal politics and real life experiences
  • Emphasize the impact participants can make during recruitment

Nonprofit groups can:

  • ASK youth to engage, and don’t assume all youth are on college campuses
  • Consider offering financial incentives to encourage participation and allow youth to spend more time on engagement

Civic and political programs can:

  • Frame civic skills as job skills, and point out the types of available jobs that contribute to making positive change

Policymakers can:

  • Support programs that offer recruitment and incentives to participate, safe places for debate and discussion, opportunities to learn skills that are valuable for employment and civic life, and/or give opportunities for young people to improve communities for the next generation

Researchers can:

  • Broaden the definition of civic engagement, especially to include informal helping behaviors
  • Broaden the definition of civic knowledge to include facts and ideas obtained from ordinary life experience
  • Develop measures to document people’s experiences with civic institutions and more fully understand pathways and potential pipelines for engagement