COLUMBIA – Volunteerism and voter turnout have declined in Missouri over the past six years, but the state's rates are still slightly higher than the national average, according to a study on civic engagement conducted by Missouri State University and the National Conference on Citizenship.
Michael Stout, the study's primary author and an assistant professor of sociology at MSU, said civic engagement is important to society but can be overlooked during an economic downturn.
"You can't have a strong economy unless you have strong communities, and that depends on strong civic engagement," he said.
In the study, Missouri residents scored higher than the national average for their willingness to work with neighbors to solve problems.
But Missourians lagged in attendance of public meetings, political discussion and group leadership. Public attendance of meetings has dipped from 11.6 percent in 2006 to 8.7 percent in 2009, below the national average of 9.9 percent.
Although the study says state volunteer rates have dropped from a peak of 34.3 percent in 2004 to 28.8 percent in 2009, the outlook in Boone County has been better, said Cindy Mustard, director of Columbia's Voluntary Action Center.
Mustard said she's actually seen an increase in volunteers in the past few years. Her office tallied more than 2.3 million volunteer hours in Boone County in 2009.
At the Salvation Army's office in Columbia, Cyndy Chapman, regional director of development, also said she has seen a slight increase in volunteers this year.
Chapman, however, said the need is also greater this year because more people are coming in to ask for basic necessities. The number of homeless children at the Salvation Army Harbor House has reached 18, the highest number in recent memory.
Stout said measures such as volunteerism, voting and other types of community participation reveal a community's civic health.
Voter turnout in Missouri generally exceeds the national average, but it has also been falling in the past six years. In the 2010 general election, Missouri voter turnout dipped to 46.9 percent from 53.12 percent in the 2006 midterm election, according to the Missouri Secretary of State's office.
The study also notes that Missouri has a stronger level of civic engagement among blue collar workers, compared to other states. Stout attributes this trend partly to a strong union presence in northern Missouri.
The study urged policymakers to adopt policies that encourage civic engagement along with the public and market sectors.
"Civil society needs the safety provided by public servants, such as ﬁreﬁghters and police ofﬁcers," the study said, "while the state needs social capital for political participation, and it depends on civic groups like the PTA for the successful operation of public schools."