FILE - PA Volunteer Firefighter 10-8-2016

A volunteer firefighter takes part in a training exercise Oct. 8, 2016, in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania.

Northeastern Pennsylvania is defined by its culturally distinct communities, from dense small cities and coal-region boroughs to bucolic townships and newer suburbs. From the beginning, the area has been shaped by a deep tradition of civic engagement – an unseen force defined by volunteerism, pride, community ties, and showing up to vote.

Since the age of anthracite coal, community organizations have traditionally played an important role in building social capital and strengthening local cohesion. Immigrants and their descendants drove this civic engagement, which was evident in social clubs, beneficial societies, volunteer organizations, church festivals, and neighborhood block parties. A sense of duty to one’s community, moreover, contributed to public safety, neighborhood stability, and the region’s overall quality of life.

Today, though, there are signs of waning civic engagement in northeastern Pennsylvania, indicative of a wider trend throughout the Keystone State.

Take the example of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. Throughout the state, including the northeast, volunteer fire companies have struggled to recruit and retain members – a troubling development in municipalities filled with aging, prewar housing. According to the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, the number of volunteer firefighters statewide has declined from 60,000 in the early 2000s to just 38,000 in 2018. Aging firefighters, fewer youth recruits, population loss, and financial limitations, among other factors, contribute to this intensifying problem.

In addition to the municipal costs of fewer firefighters, the decline of volunteer companies represents a profound cultural loss for Pennsylvania. Volunteer fire companies have a long tradition as a local force, especially in rural areas, where they’ve long been a hub for social activities like weddings and summer barbeques. Today, the volunteer firefighter shortage reflects a persistent loss of civic engagement.

Overall, Pennsylvania is a microcosm of a long-running national decline in volunteerism. According to the American Time Use Survey, since 2003, the percentage of Americans spending time in volunteering activities on an average day has trended down. This was particularly evident after 2010; by 2019, the trend reached a new low of 5.4%. In short, while many Pennsylvanians remain engaged in their communities, their numbers are thinning out.

The pandemic era has further disrupted civic engagement. The COVID-19 crisis suspended opportunities for in-person interaction at community events, fundraisers, festivals, and other functions. Nonprofit organizations, moreover, faced the unprecedented difficulty of carrying out their mission with essentially no volunteers because of the crisis. Even before the pandemic, the number of nonprofits in a region like northeastern Pennsylvania had declined.

But there are bright spots in the data. Discourse on declining civic engagement, for instance, often focuses on youth participation. The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development, though, found encouraging signs in its recent poll of more than 2,100 higher-education students at northeastern Pennsylvania institutions. According to our findings, a majority of students had often or sometimes participated in events to raise money for charity, and over half had also engaged in political discussions or debates. Four in ten students were involved in organizations outside of school, and a similar share reported having signed petitions. Just under one in four attended community meetings, while about one in seven students often or sometimes participated in protests or boycotts. This follows a discernible rise in new community initiatives in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre-Hazleton corridor.

In addition to youth participation, voter turnout is an important indicator of civic engagement. Despite COVID-related challenges, such as in-person voting, the 2020 election resulted in record voter registration and participation both in northeastern Pennsylvania and statewide. Between 2019 and 2020, voter registration increased 6% in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, and 7% statewide.

In the future, how can a region like northeastern Pennsylvania build on these opportunities to improve civic engagement? For one, there is a need for more data and systematic study. This is a long-term, critically important issue – arguably as relevant as health, housing, or jobs.

Engaging youth is another necessity. Schools, childcare facilities, and after-school programs represent opportunities to build civic thinking among young people and prepare them for active citizenship as adults. Educational providers and community organizations should pursue partnerships with one another wherever possible.

Major community institutions, such as health care providers, business organizations, and major employers, can also serve as anchors for building a strong community. Organizations should support employees in volunteering and other community engagement activities, such as paid time off for community service or using volunteer activities as a teambuilding exercise. Higher education institutions should also prioritize off-campus community service opportunities for students, faculty, and staff.

Finally, changes brought on during the pandemic can aid efforts to boost civic engagement. Volunteer-based organizations, for instance, can embrace technologies, such as videoconferencing, that grew in popularity. Such tools can be used for planning community events and improving community dialogue. Organizations can increase their online footprint in order to connect with new generations of community members.

Northeastern Pennsylvania’s leaders must continue the region’s heritage of civic engagement. The future of many communities here – and around the state – depends on the efforts of individuals willing to volunteer their time to keep neighborhoods vibrant.

Andrew Chew is the director of research at The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development.