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Commentary: What The Region Can Learn From the Missouri Civic Health Index

From the report cover

St. Louis is actually doing better than the rest of the state in many areas of civic health. That’s the good news out of a recent report. The bad news is that while the state is average in many civic health indicators, it is near the bottom in important measures such as voting, public meeting attendance and regular family dinners.

The report, prepared by faculty from Saint Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University and other Missouri universities, examines how well the state, St. Louis and Kansas City fare on important indicators of civic engagement such as voting, volunteering and group membership.

Civic engagement, or civil society, is a necessary ingredient in the social glue that holds democratic countries like ours together

Reports such as this one help diagnose what’s wrong with our political system and, more importantly, how to fix it. So, rather than wringing our hands over our deficiencies, we should focus on what can be done to address them.

Education is key. Simply put, we have to increase our commitment and give education the resources it needs. The social science research shows that the more educated the citizenry, the more engaged they are. We, as a region and state, are not doing all we can to educate the next generation, particularly in civics.

The report recommends shifting our state’s policy focus from corporate tax breaks to better funding for education at all levels. The research is clear: While the connection between tax breaks for wealthy corporations and economic growth is mixed, there is a clear connection between higher levels of educational attainment and higher incomes.

This finding is relevant because the area has extensively used tax increment financing for retail endeavors, often at the expense of local school districts.

The report also recommends that the state encourage political participation rather than restrict voter access. Proposals to mandate photo voter IDs assume a level of fraud that is unsupported by evidence. However, the facts do show that stricter voter ID laws dampen voting by minorities, youth and the unemployed.

We should be doing everything we can to reduce or eliminate barriers to voting and encourage political participation by everyone.

An important part of civil society is group membership. Two of the local groups that are making a difference with younger people are Cultural Leadership and Anytown Youth Leadership Institution. Cultural Leadership trains high school students to be “troublemakers of the best kind” by fighting for social justice and inclusion and for an end to discrimination. The Anytown Youth Leadership Institute is a  program for youth interested in making their high school and community environments more socially just.

More and better educational opportunities for all, increased voter access and increasing civic engagement, particularly among youth, are among the best ways to strengthen civil society. Investing in this social capital today will lead to a brighter social and economic tomorrow.

Cropf is a professor of political science Saint Louis University.

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