Could the Recession Lead to Greater Political Engagement?

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September 2, 2011; Source: Washington Post Wonkblog | One of the things that unemployed people have plenty of—too much of in fact—is time. The Wonkblog at the Washington Post reported recently about two new studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that attempt to get at what jobless Americans are doing during those hours that they used to spend working. One finding holds some promise—and perhaps some peril—for groups hoping to do political organizing among the unemployed.

One study, “Time Use During Recessions,” finds that over the last few years, we’re spending less time working—that’s the unemployment part—and more of our leisure time sleeping and watching television. Perhaps unsurprisingly, men saw a greater increase in leisure time than women, who still do the bulk of the housework whether or not they are employed outside the home. Socializing took a dip, perhaps predictable given that many of our social bonds are formed at the workplace.

A second NBER study, “Employment, Wages, and Voter Turnout,” found that lower wages—which we would expect to see during periods of high unemployment—leads to higher voter turnout in gubernatorial and Congressional elections (though not in presidential elections). The theory is that when voters spend less time working, either voluntarily or involuntarily, they spend more time getting political information, which motivates them to vote. That strikes us as an intriguing possibility—or an awful prospect, depending on what sort of “political information” people are consuming. Let’s hope and assume it’s largely favorable to the nonprofit sector.—Chris Hartman