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Civic Engagement Is Important Part of Community Development

A new report found that civic engagement, such as participation in elections, number of nonprofits and library usage, is an important factor for determining community development, but this engagement is hard to measure.

(TNS) — The 2021 Indicators Report compiled by Pennsylvania's Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University, shows that civic engagement is an important aspect of community development and includes a variety of metrics that identify how connected residents are with political systems (voting), nonprofits, and general community assets (libraries).

"Many of these things cannot be measured," said Teri Ooms, executive director at The Institute. "However, for those we can measure, The Institute prepared a summary of findings."

Ooms said the state of nonprofit organizations is a key indicator of regional civic engagement and community ties. She said The Institute calculated statistics on nonprofit organizations from the IRS Master File, accessed through the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics.

The number of nonprofits in the region declined slightly in 2020, reaching its lowest level in the past four years in Lackawanna County. There were 2,073 tax-exempt organizations in the region as of 2020. These organizations span a variety of activity areas, including arts, culture and humanities, education, environment, health, human services, and religion. Health organizations are the only type of nonprofit groups that have experienced growth since 2017.

Ooms said the Indicators Report showed libraries are nonprofit organizations that serve a particularly important role in the community. Additionally, library data is useful in determining the availability and utilization of resources.

"The numbers of libraries in the region has remained stable at 19 over the past decade," Ooms said. "Total circulation has declined in both counties compared to 2017, including a 23 percent decline in Luzerne County."

Ooms added that circulation per capita in both counties has primarily followed a downward trend, and remained at a low point of 1.67 in Luzerne County compared to 4.5 in Lackawanna County.

Recent declines in statewide circulation may reflect shifts in the role that libraries play in communities, with less emphasis on lending of physical items and increased focus on areas such as arts and culture, children's programming, and technology services.

In the most recent data, the total number of registered patrons has continued to decline in Lackawanna County, and was 24 percent lower in 2019 compared to 2009, compared to a three percent decline for Pennsylvania over the same period. The number of patrons in Luzerne County has fluctuated over the past three years reported, including a slight decline in 2019. Ooms said data prior to 2017 is not comparable for this region due to a change in reporting for one location.

Ooms said voter turnout is another important indicator of civic engagement. She said the report tracks the total number of registered voters eligible to vote in the November election of each year, along with the voter turnout for those elections.

"Despite challenges to voter registration and in-person voting caused by the pandemic, the 2020 election resulted in record voter registration and participation both regionally and statewide," Ooms said.

The report shows that between 2019 and 2020, voter registration increased six percent in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, and seven percent statewide. Luzerne County's 2020 voter registration rose to its highest level recorded since 2004. In the 2020 election, voter turnout reached historic levels, with at least seven in ten registered voters participating regionally and statewide."

"NEPA is a microcosm of the U.S. as a whole and there are trends that show that voter participation increases in a presidential year, but are extremely low in off years," Ooms said. "This is a sad state of affairs. So much takes place at a local and even state level and the average citizen can make a difference, so it's particularly worrisome that participation levels are low in those elections."

Ooms said the number of military veterans in a community can be telling of the community's success in caring for veterans and making them feel comfortable.

Additionally, she said measuring the veteran population demonstrates the need for social services, health care, and housing directed toward their unique needs.

"The region remains home to a larger percentage of military veterans than the Commonwealth as a whole, including a significantly higher share in Luzerne County," Ooms said. "In both counties and statewide, over half of veterans are age 65 or older."

(c)2021 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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