What We Count

Arts, Culture and the Social Health of the Nation

Sandra Opdycke

What follows was adapted from a presentation by Sandra Opdycke, associate director of the Fordham Institute for Innovation in Social Policy. The talk was part of a member report at the 2003 GIA conference in Seattle. The room was full. Molly Giles Walker (from the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation) was in attendance and reflected afterward: "The Fordham Institute looked at participation in the arts across economic levels and generations. They viewed arts broadly, including everything from consumption of arts performances—not only theater and dance, but also movies—to listening to music and doing needlework. What intrigues me as a funder is that what we count matters a great deal."

I have two stories to tell. The first is about the project we did on the role that arts and culture play in American life. The second is the role that creative grantmaking played in bringing this project to life.

Let me start with some background information about the Fordham Institute. We have spent nearly twenty years analyzing and publishing reports on indicators that monitor the social health of the country. It's our opinion that the social side, of our national experience , including culture and arts, doesn't get the attention it deserves. In a way, this is ironic because ours is a society that measures just about everything! We measure traffic, we measure baseball scores, we measure TV show ratings, we measure weather, we measure political opinions. And of course most of all, we measure the economy. Measures like the Dow Jones Average and the Gross Domestic Product are features of our daily existence. In fact economic indicators seem to have become the only accepted language for talking about how we're doing as a country.

At the Fordham Institute we think there is a lot more to how we are doing as a country than just how the economy is doing. We think that the quality of our life also depends on how many children survive their first year of life, how many kids finish high school, how many elderly people live in poverty, how safe our streets are. But in the country at large, we hear much less about things like this. Information about these issues takes much longer to get released than economic information does, it appears much less often, and it gets less attention when it comes out.

The Institute's goal is to make social and cultural trends as widely discussed, as seriously debated, and as consistently monitored as economic trends are. Consider that a newspaper like USA Today carries a weekly feature on market trends. If you want to see our dream of how things might be different, imagine a feature just like that, which showed how many people go to museums, how many families have health insurance, and so on. Of course that is not where our national focus is right now, but without it, you really don't get the full picture of how our society is doing.

One approach to addressing this problem would be to do at least one annual report that pulls all this information together. Virtually every other industrial country publishes a regular national social report that does exactly that. But the United States does not. So it is easy to lose sight of all the factors besides economic ones that shape our lives.

To help fill the gap, the Institute publishes its own Social Report every other year. We also wrote a book titled Social Health of the Nation: How America Is Really Doing. And we publish an annual Index of Social Health that tracks how well the nation is performing on sixteen key social indicators. The Index sums up each year's performance in a single number, so you can look at change over time.

In the late 1990s we received a grant from the Ford Foundation to establish a two-year working group on social indicators, so as to explore how we might expand the impact of our research. Then Joan Shigekawa at the Rockefeller Foundation telephoned. She'd heard about our project and wanted to know whether we would be looking at cultural and arts indicators as well as social ones. The answer was no; so far the project involved only social indicators.

As we talked to Joan, we saw that considering the arts could enrich the picture we presented of the nation's overall social health. So what started out as a grantmaker's question led to a dialogue that suggested new directions for our own work.

With Rockefeller Foundation support, we conducted a two-year working group on the arts and humanities that ran parallel to the Ford group. This group included both scholars and artists and it looked at how we could assess the role of the arts in the nation's social health. We soon realized that in the arts we couldn't count on the standard data sources that we were used to in our social indicators work: no Bureau of Labor Statistics, no Census, no Uniform Crime Report, no Department of Vital Statistics, and so on. The only regular data that was even close to what existed for other fields was the audience participation survey done by the National Endowment for the Arts. But this only comes out every five years, and there were many things we wanted to know that were not included.

So building on the ideas of both the Rockefeller working group and the Ford group on social indicators, we designed our own survey—the Fordham Institute's National Social Survey. We administered it twice in 2000 as a pilot, and then, in an expanded form, in 2002. Our report, Arts, Culture and the Social Health of the Nation, is drawn from the 2002 survey.

Basically we asked three questions. How are people participating in the arts? What does this involvement mean to them, both personally and to us as a society? And are there barriers that keep people from participating as much as they'd like to? Very briefly, here are a few highlights of what we learned from the survey.

  • Most people feel that the arts are important in their lives and in the lives of their children. A majority attend arts events of some kind, but at least a third report going the entire year without seeing a single live performance, a single museum or art show, a single movie.
  • At home, people are much more active in the arts. Virtually all of those we talked with listen to music at home (almost 90 percent said that they did it often) and three-fifths of them said they read at least four books a year. A great majority, more than 80 percent, said they'd done at least some creative work of their own in the past year, and most said they did it often.
  • Children seem to get more arts opportunities than adults do, but their parents would like to see even greater opportunities for their children. Almost 40 percent of parents said their children's art programs at school were only fair or poor.
  • There's clear evidence that people's participation in the arts strengthens their sense of social connection. One way we chose to measure this was to present them with a list of ways that participating in the arts might contribute to their lives. The statement they agreed with most emphatically was that cultural and creative activities help them to see things from other people's perspectives. This suggests that the arts can enhance our ability to empathize with other people's experience.
  • Finally, we found that engagement with the arts could be enhanced if barriers to participation were reduced. Financial barriers were the most significant ones. Others were: lack of information about what's available, inconvenient locations, and the absence of someone to go with.

The particularly strong response regarding the cost of participation suggests that income itself is an important barrier. We found that, for all arts activities, participation levels were directly related to income; in fact, low income people reported lower participation in every category of activity. At the same time, income does not seem to affect the level of people's interest in the arts. Exactly the same proportion of poor people and of wealthy people say they wish they'd had more arts opportunities when they were young (73 percent), and both groups do creative work of their own at nearly the same rate. Low income people respond even more positively to the question about music as a defining element in their lives.

Now, we think all of these are valuable findings, but we don't think our work is over. If we really want arts and culture to be part of the picture when Americans consider the well-being of the nation, no single report is enough, however striking its findings. What we need is consistent monitoring of what is going on from year to year, so that policy makers and scholars and the general public are kept keenly aware of changes and trends as they occur. I don't think we'll rest until we're on the back page of USA Today, although I'm quite sure that won't happen this week or next.

Five years ago a very creative grant-maker started us thinking about the connections between the arts and social health. I'm happy to say that the seed planted then is still bearing fruit.

Arts, Culture and the Social Health of the Nation was prepared by Marque-Luisa Miringoff, William Hoynes, Sandra Opdycke, and Marc L. Miringoff. Released in 2003, this report is available from the Fordham Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, Tarrytown NY 10591. A new edition is planned for 2005. Contact: miringoff@vassar.edu or 845-452-7332.