Peter Levine (of CIRCLE) and Nathan Dietz (from the Corporation for National and Community Service) have done some research suggesting that unemployment rose less in states with higher baseline levels of civic engagement. (They found weaker but consistent evidence at the metropolitan level.)
Their research, based on the Current Population Survey (CPS), specifically compared levels of “social capital” in 2006 (using measures like volunteering, attendance at public meetings, helping neighbors, voting and registering to vote) with the rise in unemployment from 2006-2010 at the state level.
In the attached representative chart the states are color-coded by the growth in unemployment from 2006-2010. States experiencing the highest growth in unemployment are orange and red for highest growth. The horizontal axis measures the % of residents who worked with their neighbors in 2006. One can see that states experiencing the biggest growth in unemployment were the least “civic” states.
They admitted that this correlation doesn’t prove that social capital CAUSED the lower run-up in unemployment but it is a strong circumstantial case. Seeing an early draft of these findings, we suspected that it was the strong economic growth rate in some states that drove a lot of in-migration which in turn lowered social capital (since uprooting is as bad for social capital as it is for plants). If that were the story, and the current Great Recession was worst in the places that experienced the biggest economic booms pre-recession, then these pre-recession booms could be causing both lower social capital (working through mobility) and the higher run-up in unemployment when the state economy crashed. But Levine and Dietz controlled for factors like the housing bubble pre-recession, residential mobility, and other predictors of state unemployment and their findings remained.
A colleague of ours, Chaeyoon Lim, at the University of Wisconsin has been undertaking related interesting unpublished research on this topic and so far finding consistent and robust findings. Based on the Dietz/Levine findings and Lim’s unpublished findings, our hunch is that this finding might very well be real.
Assuming this finding turns out to be real, one might wonder about the mechanisms. My hunch of the most likely culprit is that in higher social capital places, firms are more likely to share the pain through across-the-board cutback in hours rather than concentrate the pain through layoffs and firings. Levine and Dietz posit other explanatory factors:
- stronger social networks make it easier for people to get re-employed;
- civic engagement helps generate skills and confidence that translate into employability;
- civic engagement helps spread information that make it easier for individuals to learn about job openings or training programs;
- civic engagement produces higher trust and higher trust leads to better economic performance (although social trust wasn’t directly measured in the CPS survey);
- governments are more responsible and responsive in high civic engagement states; or
- people in more engaged communities may feel greater community attachment which leads them to invest more locally.
The brief is likely to catch the ire of traditional economists who believe that almost everything important flows from economic variables, not the reverse.
Read NCoC’s civic brief “Civic Engagement and Unemployment”
See also USA Today op-ed (11/2/2011) by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Senator Bob Graham “Jobs and civics go hand in hand“