Community Involvement and Social Incorporation of Young Adults

From the Archives (2010):

Written by Andrea Finlay and Constance Flanagan, The Pennsylvania State University

The class divide in civic participation in the United States is no secret. People with lower incomes and lower levels of education are less likely than those with higher incomes or higher levels of education to participate in civic life (Nie, Junn, & Stehlik-Barry, 1996). Much of the reason for the divide is that young people in low-income neighborhoods have fewer opportunities for engagement, fewer adults modeling engagement, and lower rates of civic knowledge and voting (Atkins & Hart, 2003; Brown, Moore, & Bzostek, 2003; Hart & Atkins, 2002; Skocpol, 2004; Wilkenfeld, 2009). In addition, schools with a high proportion

of students in poverty are less apt to offer effective civic education opportunities, including service-learning, than low-poverty schools (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008). And young people with less education are less likely to be involved in civic activities such as voting and volunteering (Levinson, forthcoming). Parental education also influences civic involvement: Individuals with well-educated parents are more likely to be politically active (Verba, Burns, & Lehman, 2003).

The class divide in civic engagement reflects a larger divide—in the opportunity for young adults to fully incorporate into society. Many people consider colleges, whether two-year or four-year institutions, to be the the setting most likely to guide youth as they transition into adulthood, but with only a minority of young people attending higher education, this assumption doesn’t fit with reality.

Numerous obstacles limit or prevent disadvantaged youth from being incorporated into adult society through educational institutions. Higher education is expensive, and increasingly so. Even though more than 50 percent of students receive financial aid and grants (U.S. Department of Education, 2004), families are expected to help shoulder the rest of the financial burden, and for many that’s not possible. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than half of all college students are employed (2008), adding an additional burden to students as they try to balance the demands of class and work schedules. Community college enrollees, too, are often employed and have family obligations (Sanchez & Laanan, 1998). These and other obstacles have widened the gap between disadvantaged and middle class youth when it comes to college access and graduation.

Non-college-bound youth, especially those from low socioeconomic status, face even greater perils in the transition to adulthood than those who are able to attend. Due to a changing economy, jobs for these young people have become more temporary, lower-paying, and with fewer benefits than before (Cook & Furstenberg, 2002). As a result, many young people struggle financially as they establish a home away from their parents. With fewer institutional and familial supports, the number of disadvantaged 18- to 24-year-olds who can be considered “disconnected” is growing; 14 percent of those in this age group are unemployed, have no degree beyond high school, and are not enrolled in school or the military (Jekielek & Brown, 2005). Offering more structured opportunities to youth outside of their families, particularly for disadvantaged youth, is crucial to enabling the successful transition into adulthood and all its responsibilities.

Social incorporation—connecting young people with social and community structures and institutions—is the foundation for various forms of civic engagement in adulthood. As Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) show for adults in general, individuals are more likely to get recruited into civic activitieswhen they are in settings where they are invited to participate by other people in that setting. For young adults, being in a two- or four-year college has this benefit. According to Pacheco and Plutzer (2008), attending a four-year institution was associated with a 10 to 14 percent higher voting rate for Hispanic, Black, and White students. The results for two-year institutions were even more dramatic: Community college attendance was associated with a 25 percent higher voting rate for White students and a 100 percent higher voting rate for Black students. In addition, in college settings where lectures, readings, and discussions promote democratic citizenship skills, students were more likely to endorse democratic sentiments such as taking the perspective of others and appreciating group differences (Gurin, Nagda, & Lopez, 2004). Non-college-bound youth, on the other hand, don’t have these same opportunities for growth and are left to seek out their own opportunities to develop civic skills and competencies—a feat that amplifies the civic divide in young adulthood.

Bridging the Civic Divide through Service Programs

We believe that community service programs such as AmeriCorps may offer youth opportunities for social incorporation and simultaneously build their civic skills. Youth from disadvantaged backgrounds may particularly benefit. Results from the Corporation for National and Community Service 2008 follow-up study of AmeriCorps members are highly relevant in this regard: Eight years after involvement, AmeriCorps members are more likely than comparison individuals to be in careers in public service. And, for those from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds, involvement has a long-term impact on employment and civic engagement. The combination of opportunities in AmeriCorps programs, such as practicing life skills and interacting with adult mentors, may be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged youth, who are less likely than their advantaged peers to benefit from a network of social connections, adult mentors, and institutional opportunities.

We believe community service work may provide developmental opportunities for civic engagement as well as connect individuals to educational opportunities. Community service work, then, not only connects people immediately to institutions that foster civic engagement, but it also fosters more opportunities for further engagement by increasing educational aspirations and attainment. The following section summarizes our results on educational attainment and civic engagement among young adults involved in service work.

Educational Attainment and Civic Engagement among Young Adults Involved in Service

We analyzed data from individuals transitioning to adulthood (ages 16 to 30 years old) who had either participated in AmeriCorps state and national service or who had investigated the program but chose not to apply.1 The nationally representative sample included over 1,700 full-time AmeriCorps participants and 1,500 comparison respondents. To distinguish between groups:

  • respondent refers to anyone who answered the surveys (both AmeriCorps and comparison group members)
  • corps members refers to AmeriCorps participants
  • comparison refers to those people who investigated, but did not apply to AmeriCorps.

Details of the larger AmeriCorps study is summarized in reports prepared for the Corporation for National and Community Service (2004; 2008).

Data for these analyses are drawn from two waves—Wave 1 (baseline) and Wave 3. Baseline data were collected in the summer and fall of 1999, and Wave 3 data were collected four years later. Survey answers were attained over the telephone and included questions about education, employment, life skills, and civic engagement. The sample for this analysis was limited to disadvantaged participants; anyone who did not report family income was excluded from the analysis. Disadvantage was determined by family annual income in the year prior to baseline. Those whose families earned $40,000 or less were coded as disadvantaged. A $40,000 cutoff was chosen because it aligned with the national median income in 1999 ($40,816, U.S. Census Bureau, 2000) and because, with the rising cost of postsecondary education and reduced grant supplements to cover these costs, families who earn less than median income are hard-pressed to afford their child’s education. We included 1,002 respondents in our analyses.

Sample Characteristics

Demographic information was coded from the baseline survey. Of the total sample, 76 percent were female, 84 percent were single, and 27 percent were parents. Respondents were asked about their race and ethnicity, which was coded into the following seven categories:

  • White: 50.2 percent
  • Black/African American: 25.4 percent
  • Hispanic: 14.5 percent
  • Multiracial: 5.1 percent
  • Asian: 2.9 percent
  • American Indian/Alaskan Native: 1.5 percent
  • Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander: 0.4 percent

There were more respondents in the comparison group than the AmeriCorps group; 56.7 to 43.3 percent, respectively. We examined the AmeriCorps and comparison respondents separately in all analyses.

Educational Progress

Respondents were classified based on how much education they obtained during the four-year study. To distinguish between groups:

  • progress refers to those who either had completed a college education at the first wave or who attained additional education during the four years
  • static refers to the remaining people without a college degree and no educational progress within the four years

Among AmeriCorps participants, 52.8 percent were classified as progress and 47.2 percent were classified as static. In the comparison group, 70.1 percent were classified as progress and 29.9 percent were classified as static.

Challenges to Education

The respondents in this study sample had many of the educational challenges that other young adults typically encounter. Family income, race/ethnicity, marital status and parental status impacted educational progress. AmeriCorps respondents were less likely to make educational progress if they were American Indian/Alaskan Native. Those in the comparison group were not as likely to make educational progress if they were Hispanic or African American or had become separated from their spouse during the four-year study. For both AmeriCorps and comparison respondents, young adults with children were less likely to make educational progress.

Civic Engagement

Based on evidence of the civic divide in participation, we examined whether educational progress was related to civic engagement (voting, volunteer service, civic media use) and civic attitudes (motivation to serve the community and reduce inequality). Two civic variables, voting and volunteer service, were asked at baseline and four years later. Voting behavior asked if the respondent had voted in the most recent national elections. Volunteer service was based on whether the respondent had volunteered prior to baseline and had volunteered in the three years prior to Wave 3. The remaining two civic constructs were measured at Wave 3 only. Civic media use was assessed by asking whether the respondent had accessed e-mail or the Internet for information on current events. Civic attitudes assessed the personal importance an individual ascribed to contributing to the greater good by measuring two items—the motivation to serve one’s community and the desire to reduce inequality.


For each analysis, we used the educational progress described above to categorize individuals based on whether they had made progress or had remained static in their educational attainment. The civic engagement variables were analyzed at each wave. All results reported were statistically significant at a p < .05 level.

National Voting

For AmeriCorps participants, no significant difference existed between progress and static respondents on their voting at Wave 1 or Wave 3. Comparison group respondents showed a positive link between educational progress and voting; those who made educational progress were more likely to vote than those who made no educational gains over four years. Figure 1 shows the educational progress and static groups for comparison group individuals at both survey points (Wave 1 and Wave 3). This supports previous research documenting the class divide in civic participation.


Volunteer Service

For AmeriCorps respondents, there was a positive link between educational progress and volunteer service. Respondents who made educational progress were more likely to volunteer at Wave 1 and at Wave 3 than those who were static. For comparison respondents, we observed the link between educational progress and volunteer service only at Wave 1. This research suggests that programs such as AmeriCorps, which keep young people engaged in service, may also keep them connected and motivated for ongoing continuing education. The relationship between volunteer service and educational progress among AmeriCorps respondents is plotted at both time points in Figure 2.


Civic Media Use

The positive relationship between educational progress and civic engagement continued with civic media use for AmeriCorps and comparison participants. Young adults in the static education group were more likely to say they never accessed e-mail or the Internet for information on current events. Although most respondents reported that they utilized media for civic purposes, those who said they never did were disproportionately comprised of young adults who had made no educational gains over four years. Civic media use by educational progress among AmeriCorps respondents is plotted in Figure 3. (N.B.: Civic media use was asked at Wave 3 only.)


Civic Attitudes

Young adults from both AmeriCorps and the comparison group who made educational progress over four years were more likely to say they investigated AmeriCorps because they wanted to serve their community and reduce inequality (Figure 4). In other words, there was a stronger motivation for the “common good” among those young people who made educational progress. (N.B.: Civic attitudes were asked at Wave 3 only.)



Young adults face several challenges as they transition to adulthood, including coming from financially strapped families, changing marital status, and balancing school and parenthood. The competing demands of school, work, and family no doubt limit the ways individuals can participate in education and engage in civic affairs. Because race and ethnicity can have a bearing on educational progress, special attention must be paid to engaging people of color in educational and civic institutions.

Educational Progress and Civic Engagement

In general, educational progress over four years was linked positively with civic behaviors and attitudes, whereas static education was linked with a pattern of civic disengagement. There are several possible interpretations to these results. First, motivated young adults may engage in both service and educational progress. Second, service may help connect youth to supportive adults and to educational and social institutions. Third, youth may also be more involved in service if they spend time in educational settings where they could be recruited into civic action and where an interest in civics is

The relationship between social class and civic participation is well documented, and education has multiple direct and indirect effects on civic engagement (Verba et al., 1995). Educational institutions play an important role for young adults. They provide resources, opportunities for recruitment, and exposure to civic experiences. Sustained involvement in community service may also keep youth connected to supportive adults who can help them continue their education. Programs such as AmeriCorps can help keep youth connected and involved. Future research should focus on examining more closely the potential of sustained volunteer service for enabling the educational progress of youth as well as developing other civic behaviors and attitudes among young adults.


1 AmeriCorps is a national service program composed of community-based service programs open to all Americans over the age of 16. While enrolled in AmeriCorps, participants receive a small living stipend and at completion of a year of service receive an educational award that can be used for vocational training or higher education.


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