David Berman, Senior Research Fellow at Morrison Institute
Young Steward of Public Policy
"Getting Involved: Youth and the Future"
by David R. Berman, Ph.D.
In 1893, President Grover Cleveland suggested that under ideal conditions the people will "cheerfully support their government." While public officials have sought and occasionally received this type of acceptance, they more often have been willing to settle for public apathy or low doses of overt hostility. Often, as former California Governor Jerry Brown once told an assembly of elected officials, public indifference to their work has less to do with anger, alienation, or laziness than the citizen's studied conclusion "that whatever we are doing isn't worth commenting on one way or another."
Support for the government spiked upward following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, but has declined in recent years. A recent survey by the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, for example, reveals that 52 percent of Americans do not trust their government. Americans in recent years have given higher marks to the state and local governments than they have to the national government. At the same time, however, some of the widespread distrust has seeped over to the state and local levels. Moreover, by some measures Americans seem more out of touch with the governments closest to them: participation in state and local elections is generally much lower than in national elections and surveys suggest that Americans actually are less well informed about state and local political affairs than they are national affairs.
Historically, Americas' youth have been among the most turned off from government. This has been shown in their relatively low rates of voter participation and sometimes in their frightful ignorance of political matters. When it comes to being informed, one is reminded of a survey by an Arizona State University journalism instructor several years ago of his undergraduates to determine if they could identify some prominent people and organizations in the news. Among the disheartening responses: Fidel Castro, "Palestinian leader (wife buys lots of shoes)," Tom Clancy, "White House spokesman," Sandra Day O'Connor, "Actress on 'L.A. Law,'" NOW, "Nation of Women," and, I suspect with a bit of tongue in cheek, OSHA, "Killer whale at Sea World."
Yet, there is hope. In the 2004 election, census data suggests that though young voters continued to trail in regard to voting turnout (47% of those 18-24 voted, compared to 64% for voters of all ages), turnout of the youngest group of voters increased by 11 percentage points over 2000, far higher than any other age group. Issues revolving around the war in Iraq and the economy and strong views about the presidential candidates brought out the youth vote. One can also find considerable civic consciousness in young citizens and considerable skill when it comes to identifying public problems closer to home and outlining courses of remedial action. The accompanying essays -- pinpointing the need to give greater attention to school lunch programs and to examine whether our laws are fair to children of undocumented workers or to those with mental health problems -- well illustrate these concerns and skills.
The essays are products of Morrison Institute's Young Steward of Public Policy Scholarship program. The general aim of the program is to encourage civic-mindedness among high school students and to encourage them to think about public policy issues in the state. More directly, the program hopes to prepare civic leaders of the future -- the stewards who will be committed to doing what is best for the state and its residents and for their communities, regardless of political philosophy or personal gain. Future stewards need to hone their skills as policy analysts in judging whether particular courses of action are effective, efficient, and equitable. Stewards also must be skilled in the arts of compromise and consensus building because people are apt to have varying ideas about the proper purpose of government and over what, if anything, should be done by the government about particular problems.
Young people don't participate in public activities as much as other age groups largely because they are less interested in politics and public policy. This outlook is likely to change for many as they grow older and settle down into marriage, a home, and occupation. Still, it is never too early to introduce youth to the values of citizenship and of participation in government -- an educational task that needs to be assumed by the family, school, media, and other institutions.
Few of us are always cheerful about the performance of our public officials. Some show their disapproval by dropping out. Political Scientists like to quote the elderly woman who said she never voted "because it only encourages them." Still, what public officials do or fail to do is important. They are not going to go away or be discouraged from making decisions even if sizeable numbers of us fail to participate. Unless people of all ages get involved in politics important viewpoints and concerns are going to be neglected in policy making. A thriving democracy depends on the cultivation of civic-mindedness on the part of the younger generation and their participation.
David R. Berman is a Senior Research Fellow with ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.