Academic journal article Family Relations

Civic Engagement among Low-Income and Low-Wealth Families: In Their Words

Academic journal article Family Relations

Civic Engagement among Low-Income and Low-Wealth Families: In Their Words

Article excerpt


Using in-depth interviews, we explored civic engagement that included volunteering through religious organizations, neighboring, involvement in children's activities, and contributing. The sample consisted of 84 low-income, low-wealth families. Findings indicate that although people of limited resources may be engaged, they face substantial challenges to active engagement. Data are suggestive of a modified life cycle theory, a resource or "stakeholding" theory, and institutional theories regarding challenges to engagement. In the context of the study's limitations, implications are discussed for measurement, research, and interventions.

Key Words: assets, civic engagement, community, low-income families, neighboring, volunteering.

In a democracy, citizenship comes with rights and responsibilities. Active citizenship means being involved in one's community, taking care of the less privileged, voting, and serving as a juror when called (Janoski, 1998; Kymlicka & Norman, 1994). Civic engagement is a hallmark of democracy, the space of freedom where citizens exercise rights, voice, and conscience. In fact, most studies have found that those who have more income, who have advanced education, and who own a home are more likely to be politically engaged (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995) and socially engaged via volunteering, associational participation, and group membership (Independent Sector, 1999; Perkins, Brown, & Taylor, 1996; Rohe & Stegman, 1994). According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2002), the characteristics of voters reflect "the attributes of people with the biggest stakes in society: older individuals, homeowners, married couples, and people with more school, higher incomes, and good jobs" (p. 3). However, this does not mean that those with low incomes and low wealth are not civically engaged or that they do not contribute to their communities and the polity. These data are based on operational ideas of the phenomenon being studied, reflecting static conceptions that may or may not reflect the civic behaviors in which the poor are engaged.

Regardless of the form, there are consequences for individuals, families, communities, and representative democracy when citizens are not engaged. Civic engagement across the various forms is considered a means for developing skills and capacity, increasing tolerance among peoples, building community, supporting collective action on common goals, and girding democratic governance through representation of interests (Schlozman, Verba, & Brady, 1999; Wilson & Musick, 1999). When parents are not civically engaged, this may have a direct impact on their families and their children's future civic activities (Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, & Keeter, 2003). For these reasons, it is important to understand possible challenges to civic engagement among poor families and how engagement can be promoted. When given the chance to describe their engagement, in their own words, what do family members report? If they are not engaged, what reasons do adults in low-income families give?

This study uses qualitative data to explore possible tentative answers to these questions. Data are from in-depth interviews with 84 low-income families in a Midwestern city, conducted as part of a large social experiment testing the efficacy of Individual Development Accounts (IDAs). IDAs are matched savings accounts in which low-income, low-wealth families can save for first home purchase, postsecondary education and job training, or small business capitalization. The idea behind IDAs is that the poor cannot spend their way out of poverty, but with savings and investment, they may be able to secure productive assets that help them achieve a stake in society and increase their economic security, household stability, and perhaps even their civic engagement (Sherraden, 1991).

In this article, we define civic engagement and discuss primary theories that may explain civic engagement. …

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