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More than half of Oregonians with school-age children say that work and family life are one of the top four things that keep them from being more civically engaged (54%) as compared to 38% of Oregonians overall. These findings come from a July 9-14, 2021 statewide survey of Oregonians’ values and beliefs, conducted by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center. This survey specifically included questions elevated by Our Children Oregon to better understand what barriers to local and state-wide civic engagement Oregonians face and how they feel these barriers could be reduced or eliminated. 

Civic engagement builds networks of engaged residents using their voices, knowledge, and energy in support of positive change through activities like voting, tending a plot at a community garden, signing and then sharing a petition, issue activism, checking in on elders, or volunteering with local organizations. While work and family priorities top the list for Oregonians with children as a barrier to civic engagement, other top reasons identified included a lack of trust in the public process (39%), being too limited on time (38%), and not knowing how to get involved (26%).

Top Barriers to Civic Engagement

Bar chart of barriers to civic engagement where responses among Oregonians with children are similar to those among Oregonians without with the exception of the barrier of work/family life where Oregonians with children reported at 54% compared to 38% of those without children.

Oregonians with children offered up a variety of solutions to break these engagement barriers down, leading to three primary action steps towards an Oregon where more families are engaged and invested in the civic process.

1. Ensure civic engagement works for working families

Have you ever wanted to do something, went to do it, and hit a roadblock before you even began? Now imagine that thing was becoming civically involved. When opportunities for engagement are not sensitive to the schedules and competing demands of working families, communities lose out. 

Virtual options, named among the suggested ideas, expanded over the last year as COVID-19 protocols moved many things online. This was true, for instance, in the case of the Oregon Legislature, which conducted the entirety of the 2021 Legislative Session online. The activities of the legislature largely happened during a 9-5 workday, as is true for many public hearings, and can consequently limit the diversity of voices heard to those with the flexibility to jump onto mid-day meetings.

“Having opportunity [sic] to be involved outside of the specific public meeting times is great. It offers flexibility to submit/participate when I have the time.”

Female person with school-age children; 45 - 54; Jackson County; White; Rural

“More things being done virtually. Don’t have time to go to city hall or wherever.”

Female person with school-age children; 45 - 54; Multnomah County; Asian or Pacific Islander, White, Other race or ethnicity; Urban

It’s also important to note that while virtual options for engagement may resolve barriers for some, such as child care and transportation constraints, they can also introduce challenges for others with technology barriers or those with additional access needs. 

“Multiple ways to participate.”

Female person with school-age children; 45 - 54; Marion County; Native American or American Indian, White; Urban

“Systemic improvements in support offered to working parents would ease the burden of work and family life on the time I otherwise might have available for civic engagement.”

Female person with children; 30 - 44; Malheur County; White; Urban

As Oregon begins shifting back towards more in-person events, there is an opportunity to rethink both the where and the when for civic engagement events. Both flexibility and a variety of pathways are essential to ensure that interested working families have the options they need to get involved. 

2. Provide accessible and welcoming pathways to civic engagement

A lack of trust in the public process, alongside uncertainty about how to engage and a limited amount of time in the first place, could disengage most from engaging in civic activities. But as an Oregonian from Jackson County offered, “the more citizens who participate, the lower the barriers. There is still strength in numbers.”

“Better understanding of civics; civics taught in schools. People from underserved communities do not participate more in civic engagement because they do not believe that they will be heard since their needs are not met on a day to day basis, not just when they want something specific [...] If civics are taught in compulsory education from an early age then children will become adults who understand the power they have in local decisions and community action.”

Female person with children; 30 - 44; Coos County; Native American or American Indian, White; Rural changing to suburban

Prioritization of a robust civic education curriculum in our K-12 schools remains a long-term objective for many. However, in the near-term organizations, governments, and elected officials can commit to regularly providing families with accessible, plain-language information. When mindful of format, access, and language needs, this approach can ease the knowledge burden that may sometimes feel necessary for civic participation.

“Explaining step by step what would need to be done...”

Non-binary or gender non-conforming person with children; 30 - 44; Washington County; White; Suburban

“Continued ability to appear remotely would help, but often lack of time also means insufficient knowledge to become engaged.”

Male person with children; 30 - 44; Washington County; Native American or American Indian, White Suburban

Educational materials are often helpful, such as providing background on an issue, outlining the responsibilities and obligations of our elected officials, or explaining the purpose of organized activities and meetings. And, while many issues are necessarily complex and need more than a few short paragraphs to explain, the goal of these “easy” resources is to reduce barriers and welcome more voices to the table—to open doors to deeper civic engagement through question-asking and curiosity. 

3. Develop civic engagement opportunities that include the whole family

Including children in civic engagement activities may seem like an obvious solution to increasing civic participation among families, yet this barrier to involvement remains very real for Oregonians with children. The benefits of creating more inclusive opportunities for children and their families not only will reduce this barrier for the caregiver, but additionally offers lasting impacts for the children too. Research links civic involvement among children and youth to positive academic performance, improved social-emotional well-being, and increased economic mobility.

“Some way for my kids to be involved at the same time too. I work full time and want to prioritize time with them.”

Female person with children; 18 - 29; Lane County; Hispanic/Latino/a/x; Suburban

“Just provide more flexible options for families like small quick gatherings or online stuff”

Female person with school-age children; 30 - 44; Multnomah County; White; Suburban

“Opportunities outside of work hours. Family friendly options. Pay for some kinds of engagement.”

Male person with children; 65 - 74; Lane County; Asian or Pacific Islander; Suburban

Direct involvement with civic opportunities may be more limited among babies and small children, yet there are still concrete ways to support participation among families, including providing child care or age-appropriate play-based activities.

“My children as [sic] getting older, so this is becoming less of a barrier. For people with young children, there should be a child care option that would allow them to engage.”

Female person with school-age children; 30 - 44; Washington County; White; Suburban

Civic engagement opportunities can and should be family-friendly. By reimagining old approaches and dreaming up inclusive new ones, families from all backgrounds can experience full civic participation.

Conclusion

When Oregonians show up in civic spaces on behalf of their communities, at both the local and state level, decisions are made and changes are sought that reflect the values and unique needs of those communities. However, 75% of Oregonians report experiencing barriers to civic engagement, while this rate increases to 80% among Oregonians with children. These figures reflect a greater issue of democratic relevance—when families feel unable or unwilling to participate in the public process, their specific needs and perspectives are not fully represented in advocacy and policy spaces, and priorities are often placed elsewhere.

Our communities have deep knowledge in addressing not only these identified challenges but also other known challenges to participation born from historic oppression and language and socioeconomic barriers. These three action steps, informed by these voices of Oregonians with children, are just the start to building greater civic engagement among families:

  1. Ensuring civic engagement opportunities work for working families
  2. Resourcing families with fast, helpful resources that invite participation  
  3. Crafting civic engagement opportunities inclusive of the whole family

This fall, Our Children Oregon launched a statewide engagement opportunity, the All Children Thrive (ACT) Collective. ACT aims to actively, responsively, and creatively engage families, alongside committed organizations and advocates, in civic engagement opportunities to improve child well-being in Oregon. Individuals and organizations are invited to join this ongoing program committed to promoting greater civic engagement and education around advocacy. Together, we can create an Oregon where all children, of all backgrounds and identities, can thrive in their homes, schools, and communities.

From July 9-14, 2021, the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center (OVBC) conducted a statewide survey of Oregonians’ values and beliefs. The online survey consisted of 1,464 Oregon residents ages 18+ and took approximately 15 minutes to complete. This survey’s margin of error, for the full sample, ranges from ±1.5% to ±2.6% depending on how the response category percentages split for any given question. Due to rounding, numbers may not add up to 100%.

Survey respondents were asked the following: “For the purposes of this survey, civic engagement is defined as being actively involved and present in one’s local and state-wide community. What barriers to civic engagement do you experience? Of the barriers you identified, please describe how you feel these barriers can be reduced/eliminated?”

The Oregon Values and Beliefs Center is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to the highest level of public opinion research. In order to provide this research to organizations like Our Children Oregon, OVBC is building a large research panel of Oregonians to ensure that all voices are represented in conversations about important issues in our state. All Oregonians are invited to join, and panelists earn points for their participation, which can be redeemed for cash or donated to a charity. To learn more visit https://bit.ly/OurChildren-OVBC and join the panel.