Elevating Civic Literacy in PA for a Brighter Economic Future

Camila Lopes

On Tuesday, June 13th, 2023, Business for America hosted a webinar about the importance of improving conditions of civic literacy in Pennsylvania. Civic literacy has a direct impact on communities and society in general, and this webinar explored how the situation can be improved, as well as why it is so important to address it. 

One quote from the event accurately summed up the gravity of the current situation: "The downward trend on civic literacy in the US has become downright alarming. Last year, the University of Pennsylvania released a study showing only 47% of American adults can name all three branches of government. Earlier this month, data released by the United States Education Department showed that eighth-grader test scores in U.S. history and civics fell to the lowest levels on record last year.” 

This, as well as a broader concern that “young people lack a basic understanding of the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the responsibilities of being a citizen” led to an in-depth discussion between policy-makers, CEOs, and community organizers throughout the webinar.

Jim Gerlach is a former US Congressman and current CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber Association. He discussed the importance of taking a non-partisan, objective approach to civic literacy teaching. He described the layers of civic literacy: understanding the foundations of the country and the documents associated with it; understanding one's rights as a citizen, as well as what responsibilities come with that; developing skills to take action that generate positive change in communities. It is a balance of knowing what it means to be a citizen and applying this knowledge to real life.

Arielle Jennings is the Chief Partnerships Officer at Generation Citizen. She explained how her organization helps students in middle schools and high schools apply civic principles in their communities. This learning process culminates in Civics Day, an event that serves as a space for young people to speak about their civic projects and share their ideas with business leaders. This has positive results in the students' abilities to think critically, to work cooperatively, to speak in public, and to make meaningful contributions to their communities. 

Angelique Hinton is the Executive Director of PA Youth Vote. This coalition is focused on teaching the importance of voting. They partner with various schools and school districts in the state to bolster civic engagement among young people. She described the positive impact this has on students' confidence in using their voice to contribute to meaningful change. 

Aizaz Gill, Pennsylvania Policy Director at Business for America, then described the 2018 Act 35. This is the most significant piece of legislation in Pennsylvania for civic literacy. It installed a civic literacy assessment test for middle and high school students. Although an important piece of legislation, the test is unevenly administered throughout the state and needs overall more attention in order to succeed. 

Besides bettering the communities across Philadelphia and the country, from the business perspective, there are benefits to investing in civic literacy. A better informed population starts at the youth level: young people who will grow up to go into the workforce, and a civically literate public makes for a better workforce. It reduces polarization within the work space, fosters a better sense of community, and overall improves cooperation and professional skills. Thus, businesses can play a key part in the investment of resources for organizations such as Generation Citizen and PA Youth Vote. This will ensure the existence of a civically literate workforce in the future.

Photo Credit: Business for America

Community Development
Emerging International Journalists Program