When researchers report on gaps in educational attainment and skills, the most frequent discussion is around economic outcomes, including wages, income and wealth. But, as the authors of a 2012 report, “Fault Lines in Our Democracy,” noted, gaps in education and skills also point to another equally concerning threat to our nation’s wellbeing — they reliably predict who is most likely to participate in the most fundamental activity of democracy — voting.
According to the U.S. Elections Project, 60.1% of the voting-eligible population in the U.S. during the 2016 general election cast ballots. This means nearly 40%, or over 92 million people, did not. But these 92 million were not evenly distributed across the population. Instead, they were overrepresented by the young, the least educated and the poorest among us. Nearly 72% of people ages 60 and over voted, compared with just 43.4% of those 18-29; 85% of those with a post-graduate degree voted, but just 30.7% of those who had less than a high school credential, and less than half with a high school credential voted. Other research shows that just under half (48%) of families in the lowest income category voted in 2016, compared with 86% of families in the highest income category, above $150,000.
The combined effects of age, education and income on voting are even more alarming. The authors of the Fault Lines report found that, in the 2010 congressional election, just 3.5% of young adults without a high school credential who had a household income under $20,000 voted, compared to 80.5% of those 55- to 64-year-old adults with a master’s degree or higher and an annual income between $100,000 and $150,000. The authors concluded that our nation’s less-educated, lower-income and young adults are ostensibly disenfranchised from the voting process.
Civic knowledge is a cornerstone of a strong democracy. It promotes support for democratic institutions and values, builds trust in government and elected officials, contributes to greater civic involvement in important areas, including voting and volunteering and guides new generations of Americans on how to live in and support a democracy.
The good news is most American students receive some civics instruction. According to recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, some 80% of eighth-grade students reported studying civics in school — 51% reporting taking a class mainly focused on civics and government, and 31% reported taking a class that included some civics and government. Yet, less than a quarter scored at or above “Proficient” on an assessment of civics knowledge. Eighth-grade students deemed proficient should be able to, among other things, “explain how citizens influence government,” and have a good understanding of the purpose government serves. While the data on amount of instruction seems promising, assessment results suggest a concerning disconnect.
The challenge many students face learning material across key subject areas including civics — and history — may relate to a more fundamental reading crisis. Research suggests that reading skills have a general effect on learning, and that reading is an essential skill for building knowledge and developing sufficient levels of literacy both in and outside of school. Without these skills, students and adults are at a significant disadvantage in our society today.
These patterns in civic knowledge and engagement have a profound influence on the shape and form of our democracy. Now more than ever, civic knowledge and engagement across all underrepresented groups of the population becomes ever more necessary.
As the late President John F. Kennedy noted: “Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.” We must double down on calls to expand access to civic knowledge in schools and communities and to reform how, when and where, we vote. These reforms, to be effective, must be strengthened by efforts that ensure that all children and adults are able to obtain the needed literacy skills to support a deeper understanding of the mechanics of our democracy as well as our ability as citizens to influence it.
Irwin Kirsch is the Ralph W. Tyler Chair in Large Scale Assessment and director of the Centers for Global Assessment and Research on Human Capital and Education at ETS. Anita Sands is a policy research analyst in the Center for Global Assessment at ETS.