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CIRCLE Will Study Social and Economic Effects of Youth Civic Empowerment and Participation

The study will be funded by support from the W.T. Grant Foundation.

The William T. Grant Foundation has made a $125,000 grant to CIRCLE, part of Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, to study “Reducing Inequality in Between-Neighborhood Disparity Through Youth Civic Empowerment and Participation.”

Much research by CIRCLE and others finds that civic activities have social, physical, and economic benefits for the young people who participate. For instance, volunteer service boosts academic success and associational membership boosts social capital and sense of well-being.

Meanwhile, a growing body of research finds that the levels of civic engagement in a community as a whole are related to that community’s economic resilience, quality of education, and security. For instance, Robert Sampson and colleagues have documented that it is possible to boost individual and neighborhood-level social outcomes, regardless of a community’s educational and economic levels, if citizens have “collective efficacy,” which means a habit of taking common action to address issues. Sampson argues that collective efficacy “transcends poverty and race and in many cases predicts lower violence and enhanced public health” (Great American City, p. 168).

Similarly, studies by Raj Chetty and colleagues, and by other scholars, have found that a key determinant of upward economic mobility (being able to attain higher income than one’s parents) is the level of social capital in the community. Social capital means membership and engagement in local civic life along with norms and values that support civic engagement.

This body of research has not so far focused on the specific question of whether engaging young people in civic activities improves social and economic outcomes for communities as a whole over time. We hypothesize that communities with high social cohesion promote youth contribution to local volunteering, group membership, public discussions, and activism by creating participatory opportunities and supporting institutions that nurture youth civic development.

Young people are close to many of the issues and settings that affect social, physical, and economic outcomes, and promoting youth participation has two major benefits. First, young people are either in schools or have recently left them; they are in youth social networks and can influence peers’ behaviors. They understand policing, the employment market, and other local factors from their own direct experience. In other words, they have much to contribute and can improve their communities in myriad ways.

Furthermore, we argue that people who become engaged in their youth will develop a sense of civic duty and attachment to the community, and will be inclined to remain in the community and maintain the culture of high collective efficacy and youth participation by becoming civic actors themselves. Civically engaged youth have been found to make strong academic progress, and therefore, are more economically mobile.  Thus, civically engaged youth are likely to have a choice to leave the community and live in a higher-income neighborhood, or to stay in their home community, help strengthen it, and improve its social and economic outcomes. This choice is critical in reducing the residentially based disparities that are observed in virtually every social and economic measure in the United States.

Building on Sampson’s work, the study will focus on residents of 30 Chicago neighborhoods. Findings from the study have the potential to inform policy and practice by revealing neighborhood conditions that support youth engagement and by exploring whether youth engagement improves social and economic outcomes for all in a long run.