Civic Health in Hard Times

Florida Civic Health Index 2009

October 14, 2009
Since at least 1896, when Henry Flagler completed the Florida East Coast Railroad terminus at Biscayne Bay, Florida’s economy has been driven by tourism and growth. The magnitude of that growth, especially in the last 50 years, has been nothing short of staggering. In 1960, Florida’s population stood at just under 5 million. By the turn of the century, that number had more than tripled to just under 16 million.[13] By the 2010 census, the state is expected to become the third largest state in the Union, with more than 19 million residents. Growth has fueled employment, personal income, state revenues, and – particularly – housing Indeed, for much of Florida’s recent past, the mantra of a thousand new residents a day literally defined everything.

In 2006, cracks began to appear in the bulwark of growth. In 2007, the number of new residents dropped to about 127,000, barely a quarter of the 2003-04 increase. This followed a 2005 peak in housing prices. By the middle of that year, housing prices began a decline driven by “extraordinarily high prices and increasing mortgage rates.”[14] By 2007, foreclosures became common, construction slowed, and unemployment rates began to climb. In the fall of 2008, Florida’s early problems with the housing market began to give way to a national and international credit crisis that threatened to spawn a world-wide economic
depression.

The consequences of these economic pressures have been devastating for many of the state’s citizens. By 2008, the state had the second highest foreclosure rate in the nation. In that year, foreclosures were filed for more than 385,000 properties.[15] From second in the nation in 2005, Florida’s Gross Domestic Product plunged to 48th by 2008. By June 2009, almost a million Floridians were unemployed and 40 of the state’s 67 counties were experiencing double-digit unemployment rates.

Unemployment is projected to continue to climb to a statewide average of 11 percent in the spring of 2010. Personal income growth has been negative since 2008 and, in the first quarter of 2009, the state’s income growth ranked 43rd in the nation. The number of families receiving assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) in 2009 is expected to be 13.5 percent higher than in 2008, more than double previous state estimates. A similar increase is forecast for the next twelve months. For at least the time being Florida’s growth machine has essentially come to a halt.

The consequences of the recession for state spending have been considerable. Florida’s FY2007-08 budget was just under $72 billion. With declining state revenues the budget has shrunk by about $5.5 billion. The FY2009-10 budget was only $66.5 billion and that included about $5.3 billon in federal stimulus funds that are slated to disappear in two years. Without the stimulus funds, Florida’s budget would have declined by almost 15% relative to 2007-08 levels. What this means, of course, is that many public services have sustained substantial cuts. The Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy reports that cuts have included community care for the elderly, nursing homes, food banks, hospital inpatient and outpatient services, guardian ad litem services, independent living for children in foster care, pre-paid health plans, county health departments and community corrections probation services. In addition, K-12 per pupil spending dropped from $7,143 per student in FY2007-08 to $6,873 for the current year, a decline exceeding 10 percent— and that figure includes $348 per pupil in stimulus funding.[16]

The shocks from Florida’s dual housing and economic crises have been felt throughout the state. Our sample indicates that the past year has brought deep financial struggles for many of Florida’s citizens:
11% said that they or someone in their household has been laid off or lost a job;
6% said that they or someone in their household has fallen behind with mortgage payments or suffered foreclosure; and
19% – one in five Floridians – said that they or someone in their household have had difficulty affording food or medicine.

The fact that so many of our citizens are struggling to meet the basic prerequisites of day-to-day life surely has consequences for civic life in neighborhoods and communities across the state. A hopeful view might be that those struggles would bring people together to serve and take care of one another in a time of profound need. Alternately, increasing financial pressures might prevent citizens from participating in civil society, if they feel they must turn inward and look after their own families, or if the infrastructure that recruits and supports volunteers and other active citizens shrinks because of financial cuts.[17]

Firm data on the extent of change in civic participation during this past year will be available when the Census Bureau completes and releases new data scheduled to be collected in September, 2009. In the meantime, our survey data leads to the conclusion that the recession in Florida is having negative effects on civic engagement. In fact,
70% say that they have cut back on civic activities in the past year.

Not only do citizens report that they reduced their levels of civic activity as a result of economic pressures, they believe that others in their communities are doing so as well.

Only 17% told us that people in their community were responding to the economic situation by helping one another and serving the community more; and

70% believe that others in their communities are turning inward, looking out for themselves and their families.

In general, the report of a lessening of engagement in the face of the economic crisis was consistent across all population subgroups. We did not, for example, find significant differences between college graduates and those with only a high school degree; both told us they were cutting back. Similarly, we found no differences across generations; Millennials were as likely as senior citizens to say that they had cut back. In fact, as Figure 8 shows, at least half of every subgroup examined reported that they had decreased their level of civic activity – save one – students. Driven at least in some measure by service learning and volunteer opportunities associated with both K-12 and college curricula, a majority – 57 percent – of students reported that they had actually increased their level of civic activity. In this context, it is important to remember that these data were collected in April, around the end of the school year and before the impact of the latest round of legislative funding cuts were felt in district offices, school boards, and college campuses. Again, we won’t know until census data are released next year, but certainly a potential effect of those cuts may be to reduce the opportunity for students to lead the way in volunteering and service learning.

Students are not the only bright spots in the results shown in Figure 8. Though less than a majority, 40 percent of those who regularly attend religious services report that they have increased their level of civic activity over the past year. We shall return to this point below, but it is worth underscoring that the social networks that derive from regular participation in religious institutions – of whatever ilk – make important contributions to the civic fabric of our communities. It is likely that regular interaction increases awareness of community issues and provides a framework through which citizens can more easily join together to take action on matters of common concern. It is also likely that regular participation in a network – religious or not – makes it difficult to say no when asked to contribute time, money, or other resources.

It is also worth noting that many of those who are already highly engaged are responding to the economic crisis by taking on more. Some 46 percent of our sample who have been highly engaged in their communities over the past year reported that they are expanding their involvement rather than contracting.[18] Virtually all – 90 percent – of those who have previously been uninvolved have no plans for increasing their level of civic involvement. Similarly, large majorities of those who are in the least favorable financial position report that they are reducing their level of activity. This includes more than eight out of ten citizens who make less than $50,000 per year and over nine out of ten discouraged workers who have no job and have given up looking.

The fact that Floridians report that they have cut back their civic engagement levels does not necessarily imply that they do not care about others. Rather, it may be that in times of significant economic stress, other forms of engaging may be important. To examine that possibility we asked Floridians to tell us about supporting relatives and others by letting them stay in their homes and by donating food and money. We learned that:

15% allowed a relative to live in their home because they needed a place to live;
13% allowed a non-relative to live in their home because they needed a place to live;
42% gave food or money to a relative who needed it; and
50% gave food or money to a non-relative who needed it.

As a general matter, engaging in these forms of support is most likely among those who are already engaged in their communities in other ways. It is a little like the old adage, “If you need something done, ask someone who is busy.” Those who were most engaged in their communities were far and away more likely to support relatives and others through these types of support mechanisms.

For some, however, providing this sort of direct, one-on-one support represents an alternative to what we generally think of as civic engagement. Among those who were not at all engaged in their communities by our measure of engagement:

9% allowed a relative to live in their home or on their property because they needed it;
13% allowed a non-relative to live in their home or on their property because they needed it;
30% gave food or money to a relative who needed it; and
26% gave money to a non-relative who needed it

Although differences are not large and not consistent across all measures, there is some evidence that engaging in personal giving of these types may be a vehicle for civic action among those who, because of lower education or income, are not likely to engage in the usual forms of civic action. For example, 43 percent of respondents with incomes less than $20,000 reported that they gave food or money to a relative who needed it. This compares
to only 29 percent of those with incomes in excess of $100,000. Similarly, those with incomes of less than $20,000 were almost as likely (45 percent) to give food or money to a non-relative as were those with incomes in excess of $100,000 (49 percent). And again, those with no college were as likely to donate to a relative as were those who attended college, and the no-college group was only slightly less likely (47 percent) to donate to a non-relative than those with college experience (54 percent).

It is clear that the double hit of a collapsing housing market and a world-wide recession has had significant and long lasting effects on the state. The evidence here suggests that one of those effects may be further decline of an already weak civic health in many of Florida’s communities. There are bright spots, to be sure. Those who have been doing are doing more, and institutions like churches that facilitate the development and maintenance of social networks are helping to soften the blow. Reaching out to friends and neighbors in times of crisis to meet basic needs is, for some, a way to express civic compassion when other ways may not be feasible. Despite the bright spots and other evidence of personal compassion among some, it is clear that Florida’s communities face a significant challenge to not only improve the state of their civic health, but to find ways to avoid further deterioration of citizen engagement.
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