The National Conference on Citizenship today released a new report, “Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenges,” by Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine. It is an important, and wide-in-scope, analysis of the long decline in a range of civic health indicators across years and decades. To learn of this decline will not be a surprise to many, but this is a comprehensive look and it is sobering.
One aspect of the research, from which the piece takes its title, is that there are increasing numbers of places that can be characterized as “civic deserts:” where the formal opportunities to take part in public life are few and disappearing. The work of citizens solving problems in community is necessarily driven by people, and in another piece I have cautioned against stopping at simply identifying such deserts. But it is true that the structures that used to foster a connected citizenship are dwindling, and their lack makes any movement towards civic renewal more difficult.
Peter Levine, in his article announcing the research, aptly puts it this way:
The analogy is to “food deserts”–geographical communities where there is little or no nutritious food for sale. You can still be an active citizen in a civic desert, just as you can grow vegetables in your back yard; it’s just that the whole burden falls on you.
This is an important report for anyone who cares about the civic health of this nation.