American Youth Largely Uninvolved in Civic Activities

It's a myth that young Americans are uninvolved in civic and political activity, but a great number of those aged 15 to 25 are still completely unengaged, according to a report released Tuesday.

The study said that 58 percent of young Americans were unable to cite two forms of civic or political engagement performed in the past 12 months, and 17 percent have not been involved in any civic activity at all.

At least 26 percent of young Americans usually vote, while 36 percent have volunteered in the last year. Another 30 percent have boycotted a product because of the product conditions or the values of the company that made it, according to the survey.

The trends were highlighted in the "2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation Survey," by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at the University of Maryland.

"The public, the political parties and the media all need to be reminded that saying that young people just don't participate reinforces the myth," said Peter Levine director of CIRCLE. "Youth turnout was sharply up in 2004, and the survey shows that when young people are asked to vote and volunteer, they are much more likely to do so."

College attendance has a lot to do with civic engagement. Around 77 percent of people between 18 and 25 with no college experience said they were uninvolved in civic or political activity, while 86 percent of those who have college experience said they were engaged in at least one form.

"Knowledge matters," said Lopez. "Among young people who are disengaged, for instance, those who have not volunteered, contributed to solving community problems or raised money for charity -- more than 20 percent could not answer any basic civic knowledge questions."

African Americans are the most likely to vote regularly, belong to groups involved with politics, or donate money to candidates, among other activities that show engagement, the survey said.

Asian Americans also appeared as the most likely to work on community problems, volunteer regularly and raise money for charity.

On the other hand, young Latinos are the least likely to be engaged in those kind of activities, and they showed the highest rate, 67 percent, of disengagement.

"This high level of disengagement may be a function of barriers to engagement, such as acquiring citizenship, that many Latinos face," said the survey analysis.

Yet, Latinos have protested twice as often as any other racial group, as evidenced by the immigration marches of the past year. But it remains to be seen if these protests will turn into votes in the general election, added the study.

Young whites "are the most likely to run, walk or ride a bike for charity and to be active members of group," the survey showed, yet among races they are the least likely to protest or donate money to a party.

In a similar survey in 2002, young Americans appeared to be highly favorable toward government. In 2006, 63 percent believed the government should do more to solve problems, and, at the same time, nearly half said they believe government is "almost always wasteful and inefficient."

In the past 18 months, "the news was dominated by Hurricane Katrina and the federal response and by the war in Iraq. Most young people seem to want the government to address problems, but doubt that is effective at doing so," explained the study that was conducted between April and June 2006.

The study said that the gap between politics and service seems to have narrowed among young Americans since 2000, especially after Sept. 11, 2001, which may have captured young peoples' attention and motivated them to participate in politics.

In Tuesday's presentation of the study, Judy Woodruff, special correspondent for PBS television's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," said that young people talk about the importance of voting, but at the same time they are disappointed by what happens in Washington, DC.

"This is the most diverse generation that we have had in our country," she said.

Heather Smith, director of Young Voter Strategies, said that when issues were relevant, young people seemed willing to participate. This generation, she added, it is paying more attention to issues and there is increasing engagement in politics.

Even though a strong youth vote in the 2004 elections, the study said it is impossible to predict the percentage of young voters who will participate on Nov 7.

How many of the young potential voters would show up in the general elections also remains to be seen, said Mark Hugo Lopez, CIRCLE researcher director.