Civic Engagement: Only For the Wealthy!

In small towns, much of the work of local politics happens on committees comprised of volunteers. For that matter, members of city council don’t get the greatest compensation, and many have second jobs to meet their expenses. These committees meet and they hold public comment sessions that tend to be thinly attended, by the same group of people, the ones who show up to everything. Members come away with the idea that people aren’t interested in civic engagement, don’t want to participate, aren’t motivated. And they push through policies and decisions that harm people, or that people don’t approve of, because they ‘didn’t hear otherwise’ and thus felt justified in making an executive decision.

It might have something to do with the fact that many of these groups meet during regular business hours, like 11 AM on a Thursday, for example, or right after work, at, say, six PM on Mondays. That cuts out a huge segment of the population, which can’t be involved in civic activities because it can’t afford it. Small business owners can’t close down to attend a public meeting, people working for others may not be able to get time off. The costs of missing work would be too high; what it amounts to is whether you want to spend, say, $50 to attend a public meeting so you can comment on an issue you care about.

The same issue comes up with jury duty, which many people want to avoid for illegitimate reasons, of course, but there really is a very real problem with the fact that compensation for being on a jury tends to be low, and it can be expensive for working people. They may not be able to afford the time off to sit on a trial, especially a lengthy one. Jury duty becomes a hardship in those cases, and when people bring this up, they may be shamed for not being involved, for not meeting their obligations, for failing to understand the nature of civic duty. After all, everyone gets called to jury duty!

And when that meeting is after work, you have to balance other needs. Like, say, the fact that you’re tired after being on your feet and interacting with people all day, and you want to go home and get a chance to relax since you have to do it all again tomorrow. Or perhaps you have family members who are relying on you to cook dinner or provide help with homework or other things. Maybe you have animals in your care that you need to get fed, watered, and in bed. You can’t afford to stay in town an extra two hours to go to a meeting because there’s just no time.

Two things allow you to engage with your community in these circumstances: Wealth, and age. For retirees, it’s a lot easier to be involved with committees and meetings and the like because you don’t have a fixed, rigid work schedule. Either you have time or you can make time, and you may be willing to do so because you’re interested in contributing. There’s a reason retirees heavily stack a lot of committees, and it’s because they’re the people who tend to have the time to dedicate to it. It’s not just about having time to attend the meetings, but also wading through the paperwork that needs to be read in preparation, everything from public comments to environmental impact reports.

And wealth. If you’re wealthy, chances are high you don’t have a fixed work schedule. If you’re very wealthy, you probably rely on income-earning assets and thus don’t work at all, but people who aren’t in this group still have more time and flexibility with their time. Their time is valuable and respected and when they decide to make time, time is made. Because that’s part of the deal, with wealth. Consequently, many younger people active in committee work and other forms of social engagement are wealthy, and thus may not be representing the community as a whole. Indeed, they may be promoting their own interests, which could actively conflict with those of people who cannot afford to take time off to attend the meeting, who don’t know where to direct their comments so they can be represented in text if not in person.

Policy in small towns is set not just by an old guard that dominates public thought, but also by wealthy people and older members of the community, which leaves out a huge swath of people affected by it. These are the people deciding, for example, the standards for ‘affordable housing’ and whether a town should be compelled to build more of it. When they’re living in homes they’ve paid off or have large budgets to play with, they may not have a realistic understanding of the cost of living. ‘Sure,’ they say to a number. ‘That sounds reasonable.’

Solving this problem is challenging. Increasing stipends has certainly been raised as an approach, and it might help. This creates problems of its own in communities with limited funding that might not be able to afford to pay people well for their service, which brings up a lot of issues surrounding the value of service and civic engagement. In the US, there’s a strong attitude that this is an act of charity which should be performed for the good of the community, rather than actual work, and people who ask for pay or more reasonable hours may be condemned for it. The idea that this is the government’s job, making sure that communities are represented fairly and equitably, is alien to some.

Adjusting hours is also critical. It’s time to stop holding meetings in the middle of the workday, or right when people are likely to be getting off work. It’s time to move meetings to more appropriate times, and to make information about what’s happening and how to submit comments more available. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they can’t afford to care.