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Employment solutions: Can a town’s good deeds lower unemployment?

The dollars and cents of good deeds: Communities with high social capital tend to have lower unemployment. Some seeking employment solutions see this altruistic glue as something to study.

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The idea that "united we stand, divided we fall" seems just as relevant today as it was in prehistoric times. An October 2011 study by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), a bipartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., shows that states and cities with good civic health have lower unemployment rates than other places. So far, there's no conclusive proof that civic health can actually create low unemployment. But the correlation between the two is strong.

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The study used Current Population Survey data from the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to measure civic health. It looked at five main indicators: how much people volunteered, how often they went to public meetings, and whether they helped their neighbors, registered to vote, and voted. It also took into account specific external factors that could influence an area's economy: the presence of the oil and gas industry, the state of the local housing market, and the percentage of people with high school diplomas and professional jobs.

The study found that the states that lost the fewest jobs between 2006 and 2010 – Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas and Minnesota – also had some of the highest levels of volunteerism. Conversely, the states that lost the most jobs – Nevada, California, Alabama, Florida, Rhode Island – had much less volunteerism. For the country as a whole, a 4 percent increase in the rate of working with neighbors was connected to a 1 percent decrease in job loss. A 4 percent increase in public meeting attendance had nearly the same outcome. To a lesser degree, volunteering and voter registration were also related to lower unemployment.

For David Smith, the executive director of the NCoC, that's no coincidence. "The civic safety nets are God, friends, and Facebook," he says. Community networking, he explains, helps people develop skills they can use on the job and also spreads information – not scientific, perhaps, but common sense.

"A big part of this concept is that people get jobs through friends or colleagues," Mr. Smith adds. "So in a large way, what having a high level of connection and community engagement does, is it matches the needs of the labor force with the workforce. It finds the right people who have these skills and helps place them with people looking for qualified employees."

That's what's happening in Ajo, a poor desert town in Arizona that's been trying to rebuild itself since the 1980s, when copper mining closed down. Local contractors have teamed up with a local nonprofit, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), to work on a town renovation project and train residents in construction skills in the process.

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