When government withers

Our political leaders may aim to spread democracy abroad, but the lessening role of government in the lives of Americans - as manifested by recent cuts to the federal budget - does little to nurture the democratic process here at home. Although less severe than the earlier House version, the budget emerging from Congress reduces spending on social and educational programs while extending tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.

These budget cuts continue a quarter century of governance guided largely by the idea that, in Ronald Reagan's words, "Government is not the solution ... government is the problem." But an assessment of these decades reveals that as government's role in citizens' lives diminishes, so, too, does active civic engagement.

In the 1950s through the early 1970s, when government played a visible and positive role in the lives of Americans, large majorities - according to the National Election Studies - believed that it was something to trust, and was "run for the good of all." By contrast, only 30 to 40 percent of citizens today have the same trust.

More sobering is the withdrawal of citizens from participation in public life. Following World War II, civic organizations flourished, and citizens took part in politics at high levels. Such involvement helped make the system increasingly democratic, as those long excluded from the promises of full citizenship - African-Americans and women - mobilized and achieved formal rights.

But since the mid-1970s, younger generations of Americans have disengaged from politics. Participation in voting, for instance, has plummeted among the young and less advantaged. Not even the higher turnout rates in the exceptional 2004 election brought levels back to where they had been: Among 18-29-year-olds, 61 percent of those with some college education voted, compared with 73 percent in 1972, and 34 percent of those with no college voted compared with 42 percent in 1972. This year's Election Day featured dismal turnout rates.

When government makes a difference in individuals' lives, they respond as active citizens. From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, young adults experienced an array of policies that enhanced their economic security and educational opportunities.

The GI Bill's education and vocational training benefits, extended to millions of veterans of World War II, epitomized how government helped generate good citizenship among the "greatest generation." Veterans from lower- and middle-class backgrounds felt treated as first-class citizens because of the program's inclusiveness, generosity, and fairness. Even today they remember it as a tremendous gift. In turn, they participated in civic affairs. Comparing two veterans with the same socioeconomic background and level of education, the GI Bill user joined 50 percent more civic organizations and took part in 30 percent more political activities.

In more recent decades, strong social programs have remained intact for senior citizens, and they continue to be highly engaged in politics, but younger Americans have grown up with a frayed safety net, and thus they participate much less. Higher education has become more costly, and government offers less help except through loans and tax credits, in which its role is obscured. Whereas World War II veterans who attended college on the GI Bill got a full ride, veterans returning from Iraq receive benefits that pay only a portion of tuition. Civilian students from less advantaged backgrounds rely on Pell Grants that have shrunk in real value even as tuition costs have increased; they now cover only about 40 percent of costs at the average public institution and 15 percent at the average private institution.

Government has disappeared particularly in the lives of young Americans who do not complete college degrees and face a challenging job market in which decent pay and benefits are hard to find. For these citizens, to whom government seems at best irrelevant, political participation makes little sense. In return, they are easily forgotten by political leaders paying attention to the needs of the affluent and organized.

Until liberals realize that government exists not only to extend rights and social services but also to foster active citizenship, and until conservatives learn that market institutions alone fail to engender that outcome, democracy at home will continue to diminish.

Suzanne Mettler, a professor in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, is the author of "Soldiers to Citizens: The GI Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation."

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