The past year has been among the most turbulent in recent memory, with a global pandemic killing well over 350,000 Americans, protests against police brutality as well as to foster racial justice, a flagging economy, and a contested presidential election. Might the crises of the past year provide a catalyst for a renewed sense of civic engagement that transcends some of the race and class divisions COVID-19 has exacerbated?

In October of 2020, RAND and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surveyed a nationally representative sample of 4,143 individuals with household incomes under $125,000 to better understand their civic engagement in the current moment. This was the second in a series of four surveys to be conducted, in part through the RAND American Life Panel, with two more to be conducted in 2021. (The first two waves of the survey focused on American health mindset and COVID-19 experiences.)

We designed this panel to emphasize the perspectives of populations historically at greater risk as they face the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, and social injustice. Fifty percent of respondents identified themselves as nonwhite, and 45 percent reported an annual household income of less than $50,000.

We found that in these difficult times, many respondents, despite struggling themselves, are engaging in activities to help their neighbors and their communities. Over 50 percent of those surveyed report helping their neighbors and over 80 percent report supporting local businesses. Twenty-six percent donated or volunteered to help local organizations that help the poor, and 11 percent worked to change a policy or law to help make their communities better.

While helping neighbors or donating to local organizations was key across racial/ethnic and income groups, Black and Hispanic respondents reported more efforts to change policies or laws than white respondents. Black and Hispanic respondents reported somewhat less activity with local businesses than other groups, but the overall rate of support was over 75 percent across all groups.

Read the full article about opportunities for communities by Christopher Nelson, Tamara Dubowitz, and Carman, Katherine Grace Carman at RAND Corporation.