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Civic Engagement: By the Numbers

(Sept. 20, 2011) People who are more socially connected are also more likely to engage in service activities, including volunteering and group involvement. Here is a look at the levels of civic engagement in the U.S. between 2008 and 2010.

Civic engagement, as defined by the U.S. government’s “Civic Health Assessment,” refers to social connectedness, participating in groups, connecting to information and events, and political action.

A majority of Americans were active in many of the activities that comprise three of the five civic engagement categories measured in the survey: political action, connecting to information/current events, and social connectedness. Additionally, more than a third participated in at least one group, while more than a quarter volunteered with an organization.

“Newer generations of donors aren’t going to respond to the same type of messages we’ve been using with other groups,” said Andrew Watt, FInstF, president and CEO of AFP. “If we’re going to inspire donors, we have to study them and know them well, and this important civic engagement data is a way we can understand their needs and how they want to engage with organizations.”

Getting Involved

Here is a look at civic engagement based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Between 2008 and 2010, on average, over 70 percent of Americans discussed politics at least once a month and over a third (34.8 percent) did so frequently (a few times a week to basically every day).
  • Over two-thirds of Americans (68.6 percent) had dinner as a household basically every day and 88.7 percent did so frequently.
  • Over half (53.8 percent) used the Internet to talk to family or friends frequently (a few times a week to basically every day) and 31.2 percent did so basically every day.
  • Two thirds (67.9 percent) talked to neighbors at least a few times a month and 44.6 percent did so frequently.
  • About one in three Americans (34.5 percent) were members of a group or organization, with 17.8 percent belonging to a religious institution or organization. People in the suburbs and rural areas were more likely to be part of a group than were those in urban areas (35.8 percent and 34.7 percent compared to 31.6 percent).
  • Over a third (36.0 percent) did favors for neighbors at least a few times a month and 15.8 percent did so frequently.

Civic Involvement by Age

While overall civic engagement increases with age and is currently highest among Baby Boomers, Older Adults represent the second most civically engaged demographic group in America, with a higher percentage of people voting, donating, and participating in service or civic groups than any other demographic group.

Older adults (age 65 and older)

  • Older Adults ranked #1 in voting (58.9 percent), church or religious involvement (22.7 percent), service or civic group participation (10.4 percent), and doing favors for neighbors frequently (20.1 percent)
  • Older Adults ranked #2 in contacting public officials (12.7 percent), serving as a group officer or committee member (11.7 percent), and having dinner with members of their household frequently (90.5 percent).

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

  • Baby Boomers ranked #1 in discussing politics frequently (38.5 percent), volunteering (29.3 percent), and serving as an officer or committee member of a group (12.5 percent).
  • Baby Boomers ranked #2 in participating in school groups (16.3 percent), talking with neighbors frequently (45.9 percent), and participating in a sports or recreation group (9.7 percent).

Generation X (born 1965-1981)

Generation X ranked #1 in the category of frequently eating dinner with household members (90.9 percent), participation in school groups (19.5 percent), and participation in sports or recreation groups (13.6 percent), and ranked #2 in discussing politics frequently (34.2 percent).

Millennials (born 1982 or after)

Millennials ranked #1 in talking via the Internet frequently (69.3 percent), and #3 in participation in sports or recreation groups (9.6 percent).

The data show that civic engagement is a reinforcing cycle—people who are involved in one area are more likely to be involved in others. Americans who participate in one area of civic engagement like volunteering, are more likely to get involved in other areas such as participating in groups, contacting public officials, or working with neighbors to solve community problems.

Use of the Internet Growing

The Internet continues to grow as an integral part of everyday civic life, with Millennials leading the way, but Generation X and Baby Boomers are close behind.

In 2010, over two thirds of Americans talked with friends and family via the Internet. Over eight in ten Millennials used the Internet at least occasionally for this purpose, but Generation X and Baby Boomers were not far behind, with more than three quarters and two thirds using it for the same purpose respectively.

As more and more Americans dedicate more of their time to digital communications, community leaders will need to find new ways to fill community needs using online technology, the report suggests.

  • In 2010, 32.5 percent of Americans talked with friends and family via the Internet basically every day, compared with 32.1 percent in 2009 and 28.8 percent in 2008.
  • Of demographic groups, Millennials remained the most active online; 69.3 percent of which talked via the Internet frequently (a few times a week to basically every day), followed by Generation X (61.2 percent), Baby Boomers (51.3 percent), and Older Adults (29.5 percent).

To learn more, go to the Civic Life in America website:

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