08/05 -  Engaging Youth in the Political Process

How can Louisiana's youth be drawn in to the political life of their communities?

Co-hosts for this program will be LPB President and CEO Beth Courtney and LSU Media Law professor Craig Freeman. Craig teaches at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. He will moderate the studio discussion and the question and answer segments of the Public Square program.

With a median age of 34, Louisiana is one of the youngest states, but a lack of civic engagement among young people has some political scientists worried. What are the important issues for youth of today? How are they using new media to communicate and gather information? How can they be drawn in to the political life of their communities? These and other questions will be addressed in “Engaging Youth in the Political Process.”

Backgrounder

"The reason I believe that your generation, the 11 million new voters, will do so much for America at home is that you will infuse into this nation some idealism, some courage, some stamina, some high moral purpose, that this country always needs,"
– Richard M. Nixon, 1971

Disengagement

When President Nixon certified the 26th Amendment – which lowered the voting age in the US from 21 to 18 – he and many others around the country had high hopes that the newly enfranchised young voters would participate fully in the political arena. At the time, civic duty was a prevalent American value, and many thought of participation in politics as a social obligation. But for a number of years now, the concept of civic duty seems to be waning among many Americans – especially young Americans.

Many young adults are uninterested in politics; some distain all things political. According to the Partnership for Trust in Government, 57% of the young people surveyed say they are not at all likely to run for an elected leadership position; 53% are not willing to work for a political party, and half will not join a political organization.

Among the young, attitudes toward government are equally negative. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in 2003 found that 53% of people aged 18 to 29 do not trust government. Sixty-nine percent – the highest percentage of any age group – feel disconnected from government.

As for “the youth vote”, the promise of the 1970’s has long since faded. Nationally, youth voting has declined by 5 percentage points between 1972 and 2004. The decrease of 18-24 year-old voters exceeded ten percent in eleven states, including New York, Illinois and California – three of the most populous in the nation.

Just under 477, 000 Louisianans – about 15% of the state’s population – are 18-24. Louisiana is among the minority of states that experienced an increase in the percentage of young voters over the last 30 years, up 8% during that period. Even so, only about half of the Louisianans 18-24 voted in 2004, while more than two-thirds of those 25 and older took the time to vote. The gap is even wider during non-presidential election years. What accounts for this disparity?

The Chicken and the Egg

Many political observers believe a prime factor in widespread political disengagement among youth is a failure by politicians to speak effectively to the needs and concerns of young adults. Adrienne Moore, Director of the Center for Media & Political Affairs at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communications, points to a Catch-22, circular logic at work. Moore says, ”Young people don’t vote because political leaders aren’t talking to them, because they feel they don’t have to, because young people don’t vote.”

Politicians have limited time and resources. They make campaign decisions based partly on where the votes will be coming from, targeting constituencies that speak with a strong, cohesive voice about clearly identifiable issues of importance to them. Issues important enough to motivate them to go to the polls on Election Day.

If young adults aren’t perceived as a viable voting block, it’s not because of a lack of shared interests in a wide array of issues.

Health Care

* Nearly 13 million young adults between 19 and 29 have no health insurance.
* Only a third of entry-level jobs provide health coverage.
* Low wages often mean young workers cannot afford health care premiums.
* If you are young, you are twice as likely to have no health insurance.

The Economy

* Real earnings for young workers have been decreasing for two decades.
* Unemployment rate for young adults is nearly twice the overall unemployment rate.
* The number of jobs with pension coverage has fallen by about 20%.

Costs of Education

* Twenty-two percent of high school graduates are unable to attend a four-year college due to cost.
* Tuition is rising faster than both the rate of inflation and family income.
* Pell Grants cover about a third of the average cost of attending a 4-year college today. Thirty years ago, they covered three-fourths of the bill.
* In the 5-year period between 1997 and 2002, the average student loan debt increased by nearly $8,000.
* More than one-in-four college students are using credit cards to help finance their education.

But in addition to a shared array of concerns that other constituencies might well coalesce around, young adults also share a deep distrust of the political system itself. For many young citizens, a sense of civic duty has been replaced by cynicism.

Some view politicians as dishonest; some see them as mere extensions of corporate interests. The increasing role of big money in elections at all levels leaves some youth with a feeling of helplessness. A continual string of high-level government scandals, partisan bickering and ever-greater influence by special interests have dampened interest in traditional party politics. A poll by Newsweek in 2000 found that sixty-four percent of young people favor a viable third party

Some of the energy that might have gone into political service is being expended in other ways. Over half of 18-24 year-olds say that they volunteer with community organizations on a regular basis.

In spite of what some have called “the vanishing voter”, the 2004 presidential election demonstrated that a turn-around is possible. Both major parties devoted much effort to the registration of young adults. MTV, through its “Rock the Vote” initiative, encouraged many first-time voters to the polls, and local media outlets, such as Cox Cable in Baton Rouge, created their own get-out-the-vote campaigns. Even World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. [the WWE] has gotten involved with a project called “Smackdown Your Vote”. Partners include the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at LSU and other prestigious universities and political institutes. The overall result was about a ten percent increase in young voter turnout nationwide.

Traditional media were in some way bypassed or supplanted by so-called New Media. The web, e-mail, list-serves, text messaging, blogs [web logs], instant messaging, face books [a type of virtual networking that began on college campuses] and other 21st century communication channels have all been drafted into service, vying for the attention of the young voter, or potential voter.

The extent to which these and other efforts are successful in bringing young adults to the political table will help determine the future of American democracy.

Age and Politics:

* Of the 475 members of Congress, less than 3% are under the age of 40.
* 16% of the Louisiana Legislature are under 40.
* The minimum age requirement to hold office as a Representative in the U.S. Congress is 25. The youngest member of Congress is 30.
* The youngest member of the Louisiana Legislature is 25 [Terrell Harris].
* The following percentages refer to politicians who were 35 years old or younger when they won their very first election for any office:
• 63% of U.S. Presidents during the 20th and 21st centuries
• 57% of the 2003 U.S. Senators
• 49% of the 2003 U.S. representatives
• 50% of the 2003 governors.

Click here to view the online survey results

Click here to view the LSU Before and After Survey Results

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