Monday, September 25, 2006

Youth: Engaged?

I hoped to write more about youth engagment prior to tommorrow's Howard County Tomorrow meeting focused on getting young people involved. But since it's Monday and I need to leave soon for the Merriweather task force meeting, a few facts and charts is the best I can do. Perhaps the discussion tomorrow will help put some of this information into perspective...

First, the lack of participation in public affairs among young people is a dependable source of handwringing for many, particularly because the statistics tend to be on their side. In this midterm election season, it's prudent to look back at voting rates from other midterms. And, thanks to my friends at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, here's a handy chart (from this pdf)showing voting participation over the last three decades.

Clearly, the young voters are not making themselves heard as much as their older counterparts others, though at least this paltry voting rate isn't a particularly new phenomenon. I'm not sure what caused the surge in 1994 (perhaps the Contract with America or an associated liberal backlash -- this is Maryland, after all).

But midterm elections notoriously suffer from lackluster participation overall when compared to presidential ones. From this study (again, pdf), however, we see that even though Maryland young people (in this case, 18 - 24 year olds) had high turnout in 2004, 51 percent, it was still well below that of all other ages, 67 percent. And this after an epic get-out-the-young-vote effort. In 2000, meanwhile, the youth rate was only 39 percent.

Unfortunately, there is no county-specific information on youth voting, but we do have one data point that is at least representative of youth participation in county issues. During the first day of the Town Center charrette, the county collected demographic data on all 250 participants. And, in terms of ages, this is what they found:

Residents under 30 accounted for less than eight percent of total charrette participation, which is kind of sad when you consider that this age group in another decade or two will be largely in charge of the master plan implementation. What's more, helping shape the future of your city with maps and pictures and markers should be something full of engagement opportunities for young people. Unlike the passiveness of voting, this was an opportunity for active and meaningful participation.

So, why such low numbers? I don't know. Maybe younger folks were busy that Saturday. Maybe they were turned off by the amount required time commitment. Maybe they just didn't know or care about it. I'm sure we'll talk more about this tomorrow.

If I can digress for a second, one idea I've batted around for the dearth of youth engagement is that being engaged requires an understanding and familiarity with government systems that comes largely through experience. While we all learn civics in school, this provides (if we're lucky) a basic understanding, but not familiarity. I think I have more to say about this, but no time.

Finally, if only because it struck me as important (to something) while collecting information on young people, what do you think about this graph from the National Conference on Citizenship's study America's Civic Health Index (yes, pdf):

To be sure, there is more I want to say about this, but for now, what do you think about it. Basically, the chart shows decreasing community engagement and increasing political activity, a trend I've felt intuitively to be true. While you can question the various indicators and assumptions used to generate these indices (and I hope to soon), I still think these data show possible cause for concern. And I don't think it's just liberal academics wringing their hands over the loss of community and too many people bowling alone.

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