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Ohio civic engagement, volunteerism limited due to recession


The ongoing economic recession is limiting the range and depth of Ohioans’ civic engagement, according to a report released today by Miami University Hamilton’s Center for Civic Engagement and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) based in Washington, DC.

The Ohio findings are in line with NCoC’s national study released in August and similar studies conducted in five other states.

“At the national level and in Ohio, the economic crisis has triggered civic foreclosure,” said Kristen Cambell, program director of NCoC.

Ohio's Civic Health Index Report for 2009 was released today at a press conference at the 2009 Ohio Civic Health Symposium held at the Statehouse in Columbus. It shows 80 percent of Ohioans surveyed say they have cut back on time spent volunteering, participating in groups, and performing other civic activities in their communities during the past year while the economy was shrinking.

“This does not mean that four-fifths of our citizens have stopped participating; it means they are participating less, and thus our civic capacity has significantly declined,” said Miami University professor of political science Clyde Brown.

John Bridgeland, chairman of NCoC’s advisory board and CEO of Civic Enterprises, said poorer people are giving the most these days.

“We had hoped the economic hardship might trigger more compassion as people saw real suffering and needs. While this is not true for volunteering, it is true for providing food and shelter. And people with the least means are giving the most,” Bridgeland said.

The report finds that Ohioans have been hit hard by the current recession:

  • 40 percent of Ohio households had trouble affording essentials, such as food or medicine, compared to 31 percent of national households
  • 30 percent of Ohio households had suffered a job loss by one of its members compared to 20 percent of national households
  • 14 percent of Ohio households reported mortgage problems or had lost a home to foreclosure compared to 7 percent of national households

Miami University researchers analyzed data collected in May 2009 from two innovative online samples, one comprised of 421 Ohioans and another of 3,889 respondents from around the country. The Ohio sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points; the national sample, plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
With one exception past NCoC surveys have found that civic engagement usually increases during economic downturns.

“The current deep recession is different,” said Kathleen Knight Abowitz, professor of educational leadership at Miami University. “2009 is like the severe recession of 1981-1983 when meeting attendance and volunteering fell while the unemployment rate reached double digits.”

In light of the hard economic times, the researchers investigated and discovered more personal forms of engagement. Half of Ohioans surveyed said they had given food or money to a relative or non-relative in the past year. Sixteen percent of respondents had allowed a relative to life with them (11 percent a non-relative) during the same time period.

The Miami University research team was encouraged by certain findings, such as younger generations volunteering more than older generations, older generations shifting more to private forms of helping, low-income and less-educated individuals serving in less traditional, more personal ways, and African-Americans generously helping others with food, shelter, and money, while voicing optimism about the willingness of others to help those in need.

“The good heart of Ohioans is evident as they focus on basic needs during hard economic times,” Abowitz said.

The survey found reasons for optimism and concern. Ohioans support proposals for civic renewal while voicing profound skepticism about public institutions and private economic actors:
  • Respondents indicated a willingness to help others during the economic slump by buying American products (71%), giving more food (69%) and more money (40%), and volunteering more (37%)
  • Respondents voiced support for policy initiatives to institutionalize civic engagement, such as college tuition money in exchange for a year of national or community service (82%), service learning courses in high school (75%), and national deliberations on important public issues (71%).
  • Confidence in Congress (4%), the Executive Branch (4%), major companies (5%), and banks and financial institutions (6%) among those surveyed is extremely low.
  • Small businesses (36%), the science community (25%), and organized religion (19%) received the most positive response among those surveyed.

In another major section of the report, Ohio ranks 24th in its 2009 civic health index score. The index is compiled from data on volunteering, collaborative problem solving, voting, and participation in local government. Ohio is near the middle of the list of 50 states and the District of Columbia on each of these indicators, and maintained the same relative state ranking it had in 2008.

“Our main finding is that the depressed economy is reshaping substantially civic engagement in Ohio,” the report’s co-authors said. The report can be found at


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