Fewer asking what they can do for their country

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Fewer asking what they can do for their country

by: CONNIE CASS | .
The Associated Press | .
published: December 30, 2014

WASHINGTON — Americans are a little less likely to ask what they can do for their country these days.

An Associated Press-GfK poll found that the sense of duty has slipped since a similar survey three decades earlier. Civic virtues such as staying informed or serving on a jury don't seem as important as they once did — especially among the younger generation.

The findings fit with research that's been worrying many experts who study civic engagement or advocate for teaching more about civics in school.

"I don't see any recovery," said Rutgers University Professor Cliff Zukin. "The people who were 40 two decades ago aren't as engaged as the people who were 60 two decades ago. This generational slippage tends to continue."

Here are five things to know about Americans' sense of civic duty:

Citizenship's not what it used to be

Americans' commitment to some traditional obligations of citizenship has slipped.

An Associated Press-GfK poll repeated questions asked in 1984 about six civic-minded activities: voting, volunteering, serving on a jury, reporting crime, knowing English and keeping informed about news and public issues.

Of the six, only voting and volunteering were embraced about as strongly as three decades ago, when NORC at the University of Chicago posed those questions to Americans on the General Social Survey, but volunteering doesn't rank very high on the list for many.

While just 28 percent say volunteering is "a very important obligation" that a citizen owes the country, three-fourths of Americans consider voting central to citizenship.

Nonetheless, only about 36 percent of eligible voters turned out for November's midterms, according to University of Florida Associate Professor Michael P. McDonald's analysis. That's the lowest since World War II.

Majority still feel obligation

Despite some sliding, Americans still think U.S. citizenship carries some duties as well as rights.

About 9 out of 10 say that reporting a crime you witness, voting in elections, knowing English and serving on a jury when called are at least "somewhat important" obligations.

And each of those is still rated "very important" by a majority. It's just that, except in the case of voting, those majorities have slipped by an average of about 13 percentage points.

"There are a lot of arguments about how our society has shifted toward a rights focus instead of an obligation focus," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. But Keeter isn't convinced there's enough evidence to support that conclusion.

"It's a little early to pull the alarm bells about the demise of our civic culture," he said.

Sense of duty lowest in the young

Young people are feeling less dutiful, or maybe just showing their libertarian streak.

In every category except volunteering, adults under 30 were less likely than their elders to see any obligation, and also felt less obliged than young people of the past.

In 2014 about a fourth of them said there's no duty to keep informed, volunteer or speak English.

Young adults felt the most responsibility about reporting a crime: two-thirds said that's "very important," and the rest were divided between "somewhat important" and "not an obligation."

Still, in 1984, their parents' generation was much more devoted to maintaining law and order - 86 percent of young adults then called reporting crime "very important."

Volunteering gains ground

Compared to the 1984 survey, Americans' sense of obligation fell across every category and age, save one.

Today's young people are more likely than their parents' generation to consider giving their time for community service "very important."

Nineteen percent said that three decades ago; 29 percent think so now.

"That's partly the fact that we have built up our institutions for volunteering," said Peter Levine, associate dean for research at Tufts' Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. "Something like 30 percent of high schools have service learning programs. They didn't have that in the 1980s."

At the same time, the importance of volunteering declined among adults 50 and over compared to their age group 30 years ago.

Is anybody reading this?

Americans don't feel much pressure to keep up with news and public issues anymore.

Only 37 percent think that's very important, down from a majority - 56 percent - in 1984.

In fact, a fifth say there's no obligation at all to stay fully informed.

The young are even less likely to feel citizens ought to know what's going on, despite having unprecedented amounts of information at their fingertips.

The AP-GfK Poll of 1,044 adults was conducted online July 24-28, 2014, using a sample drawn from GfK's probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.

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