A new study from UT’s Strauss Institute shows low levels of civic engagement in Texas—from voting to volunteerism. But the authors say there may be hope.
Texas may be the friendship state, but hospitality doesn’t seem to benefit the state’s civic participation levels, according to a study released Tuesday by UT’s nonpartisan Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. Published with the help of the Congressionally-charted National Conference on Citizenship, the report raises a number of tough questions for the state. Using data from the federal Current Population Survey, the Texas Civic Health Index puts Texans in the bottom half of the nation in a number of measurements of civic participation, from voting to volunteerism.
Among the most striking results in the survey, Texans ranked dead last in voter turnout in 2010. Even worse, Texas has lagged behind the national voter turnout average since 1972. The state also ranked poorly in the number of citizens who contacted their elected officials, and discussed politics with friends of family. The authors explain that Texas’ low rankings are due, in part, to demographic trends like the state’s large immigrant population, and its relatively noncompetitive elections.
Politics and all other forms of engagement are really about trying to make your community, your state, and your nation a better place to live.”
For many, however, civic participation is just another word for something far less palatable: politics. Strauss Institute director Regina Lawrence concedes that for some, politics is a dirty word. But the institute sees civic life as more than politicians and sound bites. Civic life involves some survey topics that Texans are far more comfortable with, like exchanging favors with neighbors, going to community meetings, or making charitable donations.
“Politics and all other forms of engagement are really about trying to make your community, your state, and your nation a better place to live,” Lawrence says. In the end, a lack of political participation allows a relatively small group to drive the decision making process.
“Most people’s definition of a well-functioning, healthy democracy,” says Lawrence, “is not one in which two-thirds of eligible citizens are sitting on the sidelines.”
The report also includes a number of recommendations for improving engagement, including increasing access to higher education. Higher levels of education directly correlate to higher levels of political participation. According to the report, this may be because more education relates to indicators of participation like income, leisure time, and self-esteem. But even just exposure to college-level courses could make a difference.
A new generation of Texans—one that understands and embraces new technologies—may also be a key to increasing community engagement. Lawrence points out the young Texans have higher instances of engagement online, and that new technologies are connecting community members with leaders more easily than ever. The civic health index recommends increasing these technologies.
How these factors will affect the future of the state remains to be seen. “The data in this report raise as many questions as they answer,” Lawrence says. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
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Read the full report here [PDF].
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Photo courtesy Andy via Flickr Creative Commons.