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New Hampshire Ranks Near The Bottom In Key Areas Of Civic Engagement

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

State leaders often hold New Hampshire up as a beacon of civic engagement. We do host the first in the nation primary, after all. 

But a new report from the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy shows that the state actually ranks toward the bottom of the country in some key measures of civic health.

NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Quixada Moore-Vissing. She works at Public Agenda in New York and is also an author of the report.

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Editor's note: The following transcript was machine-generated and lightly edited for clarity.  

Rick Ganley: Can you talk about what civic health means? What is it exactly?

Quixada Moore-Vissing: Sure, so civic health is really the assessment of civic life in a given area. And obviously for this civic health index, we're looking at New Hampshire. Really what we're trying to find out is, is civic health thriving or is it struggling? So it measures behaviors, beliefs and actions related to civic and political engagement. So what that actually translates to are things like voting, volunteering, trust in government, connecting with neighbors, how much people feel they matter to their community, and a range of other outcomes that we looked at.

Rick Ganley: Why is it important?

Quixada Moore-Vissing: Civic health often correlates with other kinds of health, like physical health. It correlates with community resilience. And I think that in the time that we're in right now, with so much national polarization and divisiveness, that civic health can really give us insight into how our communities are functioning. So how are people connecting across difference? How do people feel that they're interacting with their public institutions?

Rick Ganley: I don't know if you can answer this, if you have a data set for this, but did the pandemic or the renewed national conversation on racial and social justice over the past year, did that change how you and your colleagues thought about the survey in any way?

Quixada Moore-Vissing: Yeah, it sure did. So the interesting challenge that we had with the civic health index is that the data we collected were actually from 2017-2019. And so we don't have any data within the pandemic. We won't have post-pandemic data until the pandemic is over. But what was interesting is as we were writing the civic health index, we really felt like we needed to keep reinterpreting the data based on current events.

New Hampshire ranked 46th in the nation in terms of people engaging with someone of a different racial, ethnic or cultural background than their own. And when you first look at that data point, you might think, oh, this is a proximity thing. There are parts of the state that are not overly diverse. But actually the data point also measured if people were talking on the phone or on the Internet, and we still ranked basically in the bottom five in the nation. So what this tells me is that we've got a combination of factors in New Hampshire that really point to some potential risk. And we have a growing youth population that is more diverse than we've ever seen in the state. We have newcomers who are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds coming to the state. And then we have this national movement of white supremacy groups gaining ground. And at the same time, we have a lot of energy around the Black Lives Matter protests.

So I think that what that suggests to me is that if New Hampshire doesn't find a way to address an increased surge of diversity in the state, in a state that historically hasn't had a lot of experience navigating diversity, it could set us up to have a lot of racial and ethnic tension in the state. So I'm really hopeful that our local public officials can commit to community building opportunities where people are like getting to know each other casually across difference. I think that's really going to be essential to New Hampshire thriving as a state in the future.

Rick Ganley: And Granite Staters ranked toward the bottom in the survey when it comes to connecting with neighbors in general, doing favors for neighbors or helping friends and extended family, things like food, housing, money. How do these kinds of findings negatively affect civic health overall?

Quixada Moore-Vissing: So we're actually not really breaking out from our more intimate social circles to connect with our neighbors, or at least we weren't before the pandemic because again, this data was taken in 2019. And there's actually another interesting trend that goes along with this is that trust is declining in the state and it's declining in public institutions, in our neighbors, in our local communities. And so what this suggests is that we really need to focus on rebuilding trust and make that a priority in the state.

I think that we're at a super interesting crossroads with the pandemic where we've been inwardly focused for over a year, where we're really only connecting with people in our immediate social circle, if at all, right? So I think we have the potential to either have this golden age where we really have, like, robust civic life, where people are so eager to connect after having been inside. Or we could go the opposite way where we sort of build on this culture of social isolation that we've been in. And we already as a state, we're headed in a more insular direction before the pandemic. And we might just kind of stop connecting in community and be inwardly focused. And so I think that this is a really critical juncture for New Hampshire.

Rick Ganley: The survey did find that New Hampshire ranked well above the rest of the country in some areas. The state ranks fifth in voting, fifth in connecting regularly with friends and family. How do those things have a positive impact on health outcomes?

Quixada Moore-Vissing: Yeah, there's a lot to celebrate in New Hampshire. And I'm glad that you pointed that out, because I don't want to paint a totally bleak picture of civic health in New Hampshire. In all of the difficult indexes we've conducted, we've been above average in general over than the national averages in terms of civic health. And as you mentioned, we're in the top 10 in several areas. I think that our history of town hall meetings and public meeting is a model that other people in the country look towards in New Hampshire.

And I think the other thing that we have that's really an interesting opportunity is we have so many state representatives and senators, right? More than any other state, that there actually is a lot of potential to interact with public officials, which may not be the case in other states. With this last civic health index, we've got more risk factors than we have in some of the other indices. And I think some of this is related to broader challenges that we're experiencing nationally around our democracy.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR. She manages the station's news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can email her at mmcintyre@nhpr.org.

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