To Predict Unemployment Rates, Look at Civic Engagement Levels

September 6, 2011; Source: Huffington PostWhat accounts for wide disparities in unemployment rates throughout the United States during the recession? You might think that economic factors such as the industry mix, occupational mix, demographic mix, or tax rates would be the best predictors of unemployment rate. But according to a new study sponsored by six organizations that work on civic engagement, it appears that civic engagement measures prove more useful as predictors of future unemployment. Specifically, those states and metropolitan areas that had significant civic engagement in 2006 (as measured through the U.S. Census Current Population Survey) experienced smaller increases in unemployment rates between 2006 and 2010 than those that not did not.

An earlier study by Goldman Sachs was the catalyst for this research. Goldman Sachs’ analysts found three economic factors correlated with state unemployment rates since 2007 at a statistically significant level: size of the state’s oil and gas industry; housing market inflation (the “housing bubble”); and the percentage of employment in high-end service jobs. Neither tax rates nor government spending were statistically significant factors.

Sponsors of the new study investigated whether other factors also correlated with unemployment rates, and in particular, whether any of five civic engagement measures had statistically significant correlations. The five factors tested were: volunteering, attending public meetings, working with neighbors to address community problems, registering to vote, and voting. Researchers also analyzed eight economic indicators for the same time period (2006–2010) that had been cited in other research as potentially linked to unemployment rates, including residential mobility, high school graduation rates, and state gross product per capita. They found that civic engagement measures together and individually were far more predictive of unemployment rates than economic factors together or individually.

The research report emphasizes that correlation between civic engagement indicators and unemployment rates doesn’t mean that high levels of civic engagement cause lower unemployment. In fact, it could be that high unemployment causes lower civic engagement. Or that the two factors just happen to be correlated with yet some other, more powerful variable that wasn’t measured in the study. Researchers do, however, note other studies suggesting that strong civic engagement does help states weather recessions better, and they recommend more research.

Since most nonprofits strive to increase civic engagement as a fundamental part of their work, the research suggests another important, unrecognized benefit of our sector. Do you see a cause and effect relationship between civic engagement and unemployment rates in your community? What causes what from your perspective?—Kathi Jaworski