Community is important to our economy too

Our political leaders often are singularly focused on business growth as our economic savior.

And there is no doubt, businesses are vital as employers, purchasers, and investors.

But a recent study by the National Conference on Citizenship shows that our communities –and most important, citizens’ participation in community life –lowers unemployment.

The study shows when we vote, volunteer, and work with each other on community issues we are more apt to get and keep our jobs. This social cohesion also includes helping neighbors, attending meetings, and participating in social or fraternal organizations. In fact, the mere existence of nonprofit organizations that foster citizen participation and leadership (veterans, scouts, recreational groups) bring economic benefit in the form of lower unemployment rates.

Part of this makes sense. We learn skills from participating in these community activities. We learn how to communicate, to solve problems, and to collaborate and we are more employable. But the study says when we engage in our Elks club or church, or volunteer on the town planning committee or with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, we also build trusting relationships. It goes further to explain:

When civic health is higher, people seem to have more affection and optimism for their own communities and put more trust in their neighbors. When investors, employers, and consumers feel greater commitment to the places they live, they may be more likely to make economic decisions that generate or protect local jobs. Furthermore, being engaged with fellow citizens and participating with nonprofits can build local allegiance that makes individuals more likely to spend, invest, collaborate, and address problems in their own communities. These small choices can have ripple effects for a community’s ability to remain strong during a crisis.

So what does all this mean for Maine?

It means that many of our public policies are backwards.

Instead of wasting time tracking down nonresident college students voting in Maine, we should encourage them to vote and to become part of their communities.

Instead of withholding voter-approved bonds for downtown improvements, we should be investing more in community halls, theaters, opera houses, public parks, and other “spaces where citizens can congregate and interact.”

In the two measures of community health –nonprofit density and social cohesion –Maine actually ranks in the top 10 states for both measures. Our strong voter turnout, our ethic of helping others, and our strong social fabric (from grange to snowmobile clubs to town meetings) serve us well.

Now we know we should foster those things not just because we enjoy them, but also for their economic benefit.