By John Bridgeland and William A. Galston
As Americans emerge from the political convention season, the national conversation is dominated by how to jump start our economy and put more than 12 million Americans back to work. While Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have starkly different views of the road to recovery, they both believe in the importance of strong communities, especially in hard times. While economic recovery and community have long been intertwined, we now have new evidence that vigorous civil society may help lower unemployment.
A new study by the National Conference on Citizenship, with partners including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and CIRCLE, found that cities, counties and states with a strong civic foundation have weathered the economic recession better than those without such civic stock. An analysis of 942 metro areas, 3,100 counties and all 50 states since 2006 shows that two civic benchmarks may drive lower rates of unemployment. Communities with a large number of nonprofits that directly engage residents in activities and services, such as military and veterans organizations, recreational clubs, and fraternal societies, experienced considerably smaller increases in unemployment than communities that faced similar economic circumstances.
Controlling for other possible demographic and economic factors, such as levels of education, race and ethnicity, housing-price inflation, and dependence on oil and gas extraction, the report found that for individuals who held jobs in 2008, the odds of becoming unemployed were cut in half if they lived in a community with a higher number of nonprofit organizations. While almost all of the counties lost jobs during the recession, counties with more nonprofits lost fewer jobs between 2006 and 2009. We have always known that nonprofits play a critical in many communities - but now we have more evidence that they may be a lynchpin of local economies.
The study also found that "social cohesion" - the interaction and trust among friends, family and neighbors - is a strong indicator of a community's ability to weather a recession. States with high social cohesion had unemployment rates two percentage points lower than their less connected and trusting counterparts.
And while each of nonprofit density and social cohesion is valuable in preventing unemployment increases, communities with high levels of both do even better. The states that ranked in the top 10 and bottom 10 on those two civic measures started out with similar unemployment rates in 2006, but by 2010, they had diverged. The top 10 in civic health had unemployment rates of 6.5 percent, considerably better than the 10.8 percent rate in the bottom 10 states.
When comparing states, Utah, West Virginia, and Maine lead the way with the highest levels of nonprofit density and social cohesion and have been able to weather the economic climate better than California, Indiana, and Nevada - states that have been hit hard by the economy and have the lowest levels of nonprofits and social collaboration and trust.
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