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What is S.C.’s civic health?

Posted: July 1, 2014 10:14 a.m.
Updated: July 2, 2014 5:00 a.m.

As with so many things about South Carolina, when it comes to trying to assess the “civic heath” of our state, there are no easy answers. The answers are that we are both healthy and weak, consistent and conflicted, simple and complex.

This is the short-hand conclusion of a really interesting study called the “South Carolina Civic Health Index” that was conducted by the National Conference on Citizenship and USC-Upstate. The study was the first comprehensive assessment of civic health in our state, and it compares us to the rest of the country on three broad measures: political participation, community involvement and neighborhood engagement.

The good news is that the study found we “vote at surprisingly high rates, frequently discuss politics with friends and family, participate heavily in community groups, particularly religious organizations, and regularly talk with neighbors.”

The bad news is that the study also found there were huge differences among various groups of us based on education, race and age. These differences were called “shocking,” as the disparity between groups was as great as 10-fold.

A deep dive into the data tells us a lot about what a complex and, in many ways, conflicted state we are.

Let’s start with registration and voting. Way back in the early 1980s, I had the great fortune to work with a group of our state’s best and brightest citizens to start the Palmetto Project, with a mission of tackling some of our state’s toughest problems with bold and innovative ideas. One of the first issues we took on was registration and voting. At the time, S.C. ranked 50th in the country in both. And over the next several years, the Palmetto Project launched dozens of innovative projects to encourage people to register and vote -- most notably the “I Voted” stickers that are distributed at the polls on Election Day.

All of this hard word and creativity has paid off. The study found that we now we rank in the range of 13th to 19th, depending on the election. This is a huge jump -- from the very bottom to around the top 15. It just shows what we can do with some good ideas and a commitment to change over time.

But with other forms of civic engagement, we’re back near the bottom. We rank in the bottom five states by such measures as online political activism, contacting elected officials, boycotting products and services, and belonging to civic groups. The one exception is participation in religious and church activities; here we rank seventh in the nation.

Now, the traditional response to all of this would be to make the usual assumptions about the usual suspects based on popular stereotypes of race, education and age. And, here again, you would be wrong.

Let’s start with race. The traditional stereotype is that black folks vote less often than white folks -- it’s not so. In the 2012, election there was a 2.5 percent higher turnout among blacks than whites nationally, but in S.C. the turnout was nearly 6 percent higher. But this political engagement stops at the voting booth; whites were far more likely to contact their elected officials, boycott a product or service and discuss politics with their family and friends.

Next is education. When it comes to civic engagement by education (and by correlation to income) there is a huge disparity. When comparing registration and voting statistics the numbers are not too different, but when it comes to contacting public officials, talking about politics and community issues and going to community meetings -- the gap is huge. The differences are sometimes as great as 10 times between the lowest and highest groups by education.

When combining the analysis of race and adding in education (and income) one thing is clear: for vast numbers of folks, we are still a “hat in hand” state. Huge portions of our citizens don’t participate in the civic life of our state. It began in the plantation era when the white males in the big house ran everything and others of less education and income -- both black and white -- were told they had no role. And, while in some areas, like voting, it’s a lot better now, in most other key areas we are still locked into this plantation mentality.

The differences in age are also complex though generally it’s pretty discouraging. Nationally, for young people, the numbers for joining community groups, contacting elected officials, and discussing political and community issues are the lowest of any age grouping. And in South Carolina our young folks are generally a bit below their peers nationally. However, in the two areas of registration/voting and attending public meetings, our young folks are substantially above the national average. Go figure.

So, what is it? Healthy or not; engaged or not; good citizens or slackers? The answer seems to depend on where you look.

One thing, though, is certain: with our long, 340-plus years of history, our complex racial and economic relationships -- which can only be described as tortuous -- and our state’s civic triumphs all tangled up in our civic tragedies -- we remain a strange and conflicted place.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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