Richard Toon, Senior Policy Analyst, Morrison Institute
Young Steward of Public Policy
"Good News on Youth Civic Engagement"
by Richard Toon
We’ve all the heard the bad news:
• There’s a general decline in civic engagement in America;
• There’s a drop in voter turnout each election cycle;
• Americans are less and less informed about public issues;
• Young people particularly show these traits.
But before we lament too much how little interest the next generation is showing in becoming free and responsible citizens – and certainly before we start pointing fingers – let’s take another look.
Voter turnout is often taken as the bellweather indicator of civic engagement. And despite all the gloom and doom, a recent report by CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) concluded that the youth vote is up. That’s right: Up.
Looking at trends between 2002 and 2006, CIRCLE found that the youth vote (voters aged 18 to 29) showed the greatest increases among all age groups in major national elections.
There was even better news for Arizona. While the national increase was 3 percent, it rose three times that in our state. In the midterm election of 2006, 23 percent of Arizona youth vote turned out, placing us 34th in the nation (rankings of states and D.C.). If you’re not impressed by 34th place, consider that in 2002 we ranked 51st, or dead last.
This latest ranking means there is still much to be done – we are still two percentage points lower than the nation as a whole. But it is surely encouraging news.
There are other encouraging signs, among them the winning essays produced by Morrison Institute’s Young Steward of Public Policy Scholarship program. The general aim of the program, run by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, is to encourage civic-mindedness among high school students and to encourage them to think about public policy issues affecting the state. The program also hopes to prepare our future civic leaders – those stewards who will be committed to doing what is best for Arizona and its residents and for their communities, regardless of political philosophy or personal gain.
These essays show potential future stewards honing their skills as policy analysts in judging whether particular courses of action are effective, efficient, and equitable. Each of the winning essays, reproduced here, exemplifies these skills. They also reveal a passion for their topics that many of us older observers might learn or re-learn from.
The first-place essay by Charles Jannetto on the need for safe schools legislation and the second-place winner by Allison Pilar Wiley on funding for high school honors programs show how good policy ideas often come from one’s own community and experience. But Arizona’s young people also have creative ideas to offer concerning broader issues that face us all, as shown in Dawson Rauch’s honorable mention for his essay on illegal immigration in the state.
We should commend the boldness of these budding analysts’ approach to such difficult problems, even if we disagree with their conclusions or wish to debate these issues more. In fact, that’s exactly what we should be doing. If encouraging reports like that from CIRCLE do indeed identify a genuine change in young people’s engagement with public policy issues, we must recognize that this welcome trend will only continue if our youth believe that they are being heard. Why should we listen? Certainly because it’s the right thing to do; certainly because it’s the nice thing to do; certainly because they’re our own children.
Oh yes, and because the essays here are from members of the so-called “Y” generation, which some estimates place at 76 million soon-to-be voters and taxpayers. Whatever this enormous swath of the population says or doesn’t say – we’d better be listening.
Richard Toon is a senior policy analyst with ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Contact Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org.