Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Illinois Civic Health Index

By Shawn Healy
The political climate in Illinois is nothing less than a national embarrassment. Last January, we impeached and removed our sitting Governor from office. Come next June, he will face trial on charges that will likely lead to imprisonment, making him the 4th of the last 7 Illinois governors to go from the executive mansion to the jailhouse. Our state faces a $10 billion structural deficit, and generations have grown up alongside a pay-to-play culture perpetuated by systemic corruption. It therefore comes as little surprise that our citizens look elsewhere for political leadership or withdraw from the public arena altogether. A new report released today by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) confirms these ugly facts.

The NCOC has published the National Civic Health Index since 2006, and began releasing select state supplements last year in Florida, Ohio, and California. Today, with funding from the McCormick Foundation and the skill and expertise of the Freedom Project, the NCOC releases its first Illinois Civic Health Index.

Among the lowlights:
  • Trust in Illinois state government is at a serious low. Only 15% of Illinoisians said they believed the state government did the right thing most of the time, compared to 27% nationally.
  • Illinoisans have been cutting back on civic engagement for years, and at a faster pace that the rest of the country. In 2006, state residents were more likely to volunteer than the national average. These trends flipped to less likely in 2009, with 24.9% volunteering statewide, and 26.5% nationally. From 2003 to 2006 alone, there was a 22% reduction in Illinoisans' volunteer hours.
  • In 2009, state residents cut back volunteering by 76%, higher than the 72% national average.
  • Illinois Millennials (ages 15-29) also showed lower levels of engagement than their national peers. 77% reveal cutbacks since 2008 as opposed to 71% nationally.
  • Not only do Illinois Millennials volunteer at a lower rate than their generational cohorts (39%), Gen-Xers (47%) and Seniors (48%), they also trail their peers nationally.
  • In fact, Millennials lead the way in terms of volunteerism nationally (43% participation).
At play are two dual forces that are catastrophic for citizens of the Land of Lincoln. One, the deepest recession in a generation has forced Americans to focus inward, and Illinois has been disproportionally affected by these devastating economic forces. Two, endemic corruption punctuated by scandals at all levels of government in Illinois (city, county, and state), have bred apathy and widespread disengagement. Why participate in a system fixed for the powerful few?

This dearth of depressing information considered, there were a few bright spots that emerged from the gloomy data. While citizens have lost faith in Springfield, they are willing to ask Washington to rectify our civic health deficit.
  • 75% of Illinoisans support a policy that would require all state high school students to complete community service.
  • 72% endorse a requirement for all high school students to pass a new government or civics test.
  • 89% back a proposal to provide college tuition assistance for service.
I might humbly suggest that the answer to our deficit lies closer to home. The obvious policy solutions have already been pursued, some of them enacted, and others on the verge. They include greater transparency in the business of state government, a strengthened Freedom of Information Act, and campaign finance reform, but are by no means a panacea. We must also find a way to bring young people back into the system, and a renewed commitment to civic education is the preferred course.

The Illinois Civic Blueprint, a product of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the Freedom Project, provides a framework to restore of state's schools to their original purpose: to prepare young people for their roles as citizens in self-government. It marries civic education providers with school districts across the state, offering professional development for teachers and civic learning opportunities for students. It features schools across the state who are already leading the way. It puts forth a process, a "civic audit," by which school teams can assess the degree to which civics is incorporated across the curriculum based on six promising approaches, identifying deficiencies along the way and providing the resources to rectify them. Finally, it elevates exemplary institutions with "Democracy School" recognition.

The question to Illinois citizens and their elected officials is this: Are you sick and tired of the morass that has blanketed this formerly proud state on account of leaders who have continually failed and flaunted the public trust? We provide the answers today when we encounter these grim details, tomorrow when we take civic action, and next year when we flock to the polls, and I am hopeful that the next measurement of our civic health is the first indicator of a welcome and long-awaited renewal.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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