This is Thanksgiving week. It’s when we traditionally gather, catch up with one another, interact and connect — sometimes willingly and sometimes less so depending on your family dynamics.
This time also represents the calm before the inevitable Presidential election storm that looms ahead in 2020. And so, it felt timely to look at where we stand as a state in terms of our civic health — “the degree to which citizens participate in their communities, from local and state governance to interactions with friends or family” (2019 Georgia Civic Health Index).
The Georgia Family Connection Partnership, the Georgia Municipal Association and the National Conference on Citizenship released the second Georgia Civic Health Index following the first report produced in 2013. The report seeks to compare our state with the rest of nation on indicators of civic health — namely social connectedness, community involvement and political action. Spoiler alert: We aren’t thriving as a civic body.
In general, our state lags in many areas of civic health compared to national averages. Compared to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Georgia ranks 49th in both “group participation” and “contacted/visited a public official.” We are 50th in “frequently hear from or spend time with family or friends” and “frequently talk with or spend time with neighbors.”
I found this shocking. I grew up in Marietta and have lived in the Golden Isles for the last eight years.
In the south, and in Georgia specifically, we pride ourselves on southern hospitality. We view ourselves as very socially engaged, polite and connected.
As it turns out, we are much more isolated from one another than we might expect.
As with any data, the story changes when we break down these numbers. For instance, when looking at frequency of contact with family and friends, just 77.3 percent of males reported spending time frequently with family and friends compared to 84.5 percent of females. When comparing rural and urban communities, 85.3 percent of rural Georgians were frequently connected versus 76.1 percent in urban areas.
This may be because we tend to have less geographic mobility in rural areas, which often means we live in closer proximity to family and friends.
This rural/urban divide is confirmed when looking at the county level where frequency is higher in rural areas.
The report also shows that Georgia declined in several areas as well compared to the 2013 data. Voting in local elections dropped from 29th to 40th; volunteering dropped from 34th to 44th; contacting a public official dropped from 34th to 49th; group membership or participation dropped from 28th to 49th; and donating to charitable or religious organizations dropped from 40th to 47th.
But why does it matter? How does civic health correlate with other indicators of societal strength?
It turns out there are correlations between civic health and improved public health, stronger workforce development, employment, improved childhood development and adolescent well-being, improved mental health, lower violent crime rates and delinquency, and reduced mortality. Wow.
Now, to be clear, correlation is not causation. These variables are not caused by strong civic health. Rather, there are links between all of these factors. So, presumably one strengthens the other.
My hope for you this Thanksgiving is that you attempt to personally build on your own civic health. Spend this holiday connecting, sharing and even civilly discussing politics (gasp). As a nation, we have become so polarized that talk of government and politics is taboo, even dangerous.
But maybe, no matter your family dynamic nor your political ideology, we can remind ourselves as we enter this season that we are all Americans, all Georgians, and ultimately, we all care about the health and well-being of our community and neighbors.
Call me an idealist, but I think this could go a long way in bolstering what appears to be a pretty anemic civic health score.
The 2019 Georgia Civic Health Index can be viewed at https://www.ncoc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2019-Georgia-Civic-Health-Index.pdf