Austin-area residents have a high rate of voter turnout but continue to have a low rate of volunteerism, according to a new report on Austin’s civic health. The 2018 Greater Austin Civic Health Index offers a snapshot into residents’ participation in politics, philanthropy, and our neighborhoods.
“In terms of civic engagement, these are the three legs of the stool,” said Susan Nold, director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at UT-Austin. “They create a framework for developing a common definition for the vague concept of civic engagement.”
“The way we define civic health is to say it’s the way people organize themselves to solve community problems,” said Patrick Bixler, one of the authors of the report and an assistant professor at the RGK Center at the LBJ School at UT-Austin. “There’s a lot of evidence that suggests higher indicators of civic health related to positive outcomes in education, health, and general happiness.”
To create the report, the RGK Center conducted a phone survey in August of residents across a six-county area, including Burnet, Williamson, Travis, Hays, Bastrop, and Caldwell. More than 100,000 calls were made in order to have enough responses to make the data valid. Researchers were also able to compare this year’s responses to those from previous years.
In terms of political participation, Austin-area residents are relatively active compared to the Texas overall. About 62 percent of residents voted in the 2016 presidential election, which is consistent with the three previous presidential elections. And about 59 percent voted in the most recent local election. Moreover, 43 percent of Austin-area residents said they had contacted a public official in the past 12 months. “In fact, Austin ranks first among the top 50 metro areas in the country as most likely to contact a public official,” said Bixler. In general, the highest income and oldest residents show the highest rate of political involvement.
About 68 percent of residents reported donating $100 or more to charity, but only 33 percent report having volunteered in the past month. In the past 10 years, charitable giving has improved but volunteering has declined slightly.
The report says residents are just as neighborly today as in 2004, with 58 percent reporting that they feel comfortable asking their neighbors for favors. “There’s a strong relationship between social connectedness and an individual’s health,” said Bixler.
The goal of the report, says Nold, is to help residents understand what civic engagement looks like and figure out where they fit in. “This is a measure of how citizens show up for each other,” she said. “There’s an opportunity for all of us to reflect and consider which of these things we’re doing and where we can do better.”