Trust in big government? Try civics education

Trust in big government? Try civics education
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As the COVID-19 Pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, the economic shocks have brought real and founded fears of a new global depression

Unemployment is skyrocketing and economic growth is plummeting. Many restaurants and retail stores may never reopen, schools will need to look different, the travel industry is in crisis and small businesses and nonprofits are struggling to survive. 

The country we knew is not coming back anytime soon, and may never come back. The crisis is hitting particularly hard for those most economically disadvantaged — who are losing their jobs, cannot afford rent and are falling ill to the pandemic. As is often the case in this country, adverse economic impact congeals with race, which harms communities of color in disproportionate ways. 


It is becoming increasingly clear that the answer to these historical challenges must be robust government action. All of a sudden, ideas that sounded incredibly progressive only weeks ago are entering the mainstream: universal healthcare, universal child care and even a universal basic income. The yearning for government action is not a liberal talking point. Even conservative Republicans recognize that big government is needed at this moment. Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyPence heckled with calls of 'traitor' at conservative conference Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior MORE (R-Mo.) proposed a bill that would require the government to cover 80 percent of payroll costs for businesses for the duration of the pandemic. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (R-Fla.) championed the $650 billion Small Business Association (SBA) payroll protection loan program. 

Yet, while these ambitious governmental programs are receiving renewed attention, mistrust and frustration with the government — since late April — is growing. Federal and local governments were slow to respond to the crisis, saying for months that the United States had nothing to worry about. The aforementioned SBA loan program has been an unmitigated disaster, with loans initially going to large-scale hotel and restaurant companies over the small businesses it was meant to support. Despite promises of more extensive and lucrative unemployment coverage, requests have gone unheeded for weeks, while others have yet to receive their stimulus checks. 

This distrust in government precedes the frustration that stems from the current moment. A 2019 Pew poll noted that only 17 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do what is right. This is especially bad amongst our youngest generations: almost 50 percent of 18-29 year olds fell in the lowest trust category, which was true of only about 20 percent of respondents 65 and older. 

Young people are graduating into, or are part of, the worst economy in generations, but do not trust the government to help them improve their lot in life. There are signs that Americans are trusting in their local government in this moment of crisis, but on the aggregate, trust in government, especially at the federal level, remains perilously low.

This is strikingly different from opinion polls from the Great Depression. Despite the incredibly bleak economic times, a 1937 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of Americans were positive about their future economic conditions because of a trust in government to take effective action. Additionally, large majorities favored the federal government providing free medical care, supporting local governments to cover medical care for mothers and spending to control venereal diseases.


Thus, the question becomes how to build support for robust government intervention and action in a moment in which so few trust the government to actually do the right thing? This question is especially pressing to address with young people, who have long given up on the ability of government to make a positive difference in their lives.

There are many (or perhaps few) answers to this crucial but complex question. But one potential solution in the moment is to invest heavily in civics education.

Civics education has too often been seen as the boring, ahistorical set of facts and procedures in school: young people learn the three branches of government, how a bill becomes a law, etc. The subject has been deprioritized and disinvested in during recent decades, which is one reason that it is now common that statistics on the dismal civic knowledge that the public possesses (only one-third of the American public can name all three branches of government, more than 50 percent of Americans can’t name one Supreme Court justice) are often showcased. These statistics do matter, but they’re a little in vogue as trivia talking points.

Instead of focusing on a knowledge-centric approach, which is often divorced from the social context and the lived experiences of a diverse student population, effective civics education allows young people to re-imagine what democracy, and government, can look like. Experiential civics education, which calls on young people to take action on issues they care about in their own communities, allows young people to learn how government works through recognizing the role that public officials play in shuttering or reopening the economy, providing critical backfills to individuals who cannot afford rent and providing public health solutions. 

This civics education does not call for young people to blindly trust governmental officials — that would be unfair and unreasonable. Rather, it calls for them to understand the importance of governmental action, and, if they do not agree with it, they can push for better solutions. While it is true that economic inequality affects political representation in America, particularly at the federal level, we need to emphasize the other end of the equation as well: we tend to get the government we deserve, or better said, push for.

This is not a vague call for action. In forthcoming stimulus deliberations, Congress has the opportunity to invest in civics education organizations that are supporting districts and schools hit hardest by our public health crisis. In a moment when young people are struggling to understand the role of government in their lives, this is a critical investment in the long-term health of our democracy. 

Civics education is not the antidote to all of our governmental trust issues in an era in which government action will matter more than it ever has. But it is a critical lever in these unparalleled times. Government is going to matter more than it has in generations. If that is the case, it’s incumbent on us to invest in a citizenry that is capable and motivated to push these government programs to be as fair, equitable, and representative as possible. One cannot occur without the other.

Scott Warren is the co-founder and CEO of Generation Citizen, a national civics education nonprofit.