Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Social Class and Civic Participation
The long-recognized and stubborn relationship in the United States between social class and political participation has been referred to as the best-documented finding in American political behavior research. 13 The class divide in political participation takes many forms. The self-reported volunteering rate is 25 percent for young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) who have attended college even briefly, but only 11 percent for those who have never attended college—about half the youth population.14 In 2008, the voter turnout rate for young people without college experience was 36 percent, compared with 62 percent for those with college experience.15 These gaps tend to be larger in the United States than in many European nations, where labor unions play a major role in political recruitment. Trends over the past several decades suggest that the U.S. class divide in civic participation has widened (although the verdict is still out).
Young people are most likely to become civically engaged when they are in settings, such as faith-based institutions, workplaces, schools, and community organizations, where they become knowledgeable about issues and about how to take action on them, where they are asked by someone to join an organization or attend a meeting, or where normative pressures encourage them to participate in civic affairs.16 Young adults from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, however, do not have equal access to such opportunities.
Inequalities in political participation among young Americans are rooted in the differing education and political involvement of their parents. Parents of high socioeconomic status pass on to their children such advantages as political awareness, access to community and educational resources, and, ultimately, the child's own educational attainment. Parental education is a more powerful predictor of a young adult child's voting than is parental profession or income, though, not surprisingly, its influence diminishes over time as a child's adult roles and the normative pressures associated with them begin to shape habits of civic participation. Voting in young adulthood entails certain costs, such as learning about political parties and about the registration and voting process; in addition, peers of young adults are more likely to be non-voters. Having better educated parents overcomes many of these costs and also increases normative pressures to be engaged.17
The class divide in civic participation is thus attributable, in part, to cumulative disadvantage over the course of childhood and adolescence. But it also results from a lack of institutional opportunities for civic activities for young adults who do not attend college. In years past, non-college-bound youth had alternative sites for civic learning and recruitment. During the 1970s, for example, almost 14 percent of young adults without college experience belonged to unions, which promoted voting, leadership skills, and issue discussion among their members. And about 40 percent of young adults who had not gone to college attended weekly religious services, where they could be recruited for civic and political activities and consequently develop civic and organizational skills. More than two-thirds of this group also read a newspaper at least a few times a week to keep up with social issues and civic affairs. Today, however, according to the self-reports of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds who have not attended college, union membership has dropped by more than half (to just 6 percent), newspaper readership is down by more than one-third (to 45 percent), and regular religious attendance is down 5 points to about 41 percent.18 These forms of engagement have declined for college-educated young people as well, but their situation is less isolating. Not only do they have college itself as a civic opportunity, but the alternative institutions appear to serve them better. They are, for example, more likely to belong to unions than their non-college-educated contemporaries. Thus even institutions traditionally understood as resources for the working class are now more likely to serve young members of the middle class.
The importance of being there in institutional settings (such as school or work) where one can be recruited into civic activities is illustrated by estimates by the Independent Sector that 71 percent of volunteers and 61 percent of charitable contributors take part in these activities at someone's request.19 A disconcerting report by Child Trends reveals that many of the nation's young adults aged eighteen to twenty-four have no access to such settings: about 14 percent are not in school or the military, have no degree beyond high school, and are not in the work force. And that share has been growing.20 Community-based programs like City Year provide one alternative institutional setting for youth who are not going to college, but funding for these programs falls far short of their needs.