Civic, Political, and Private Life

Every one of us has a civic, political, and private life. Activities examine whether the government can restrict personal freedoms (private life) in a public health emergency such as COVID-19; women's political participation (political life) around the world; and whether the U.S. should adopt Universal Basic Income (civic life) as a national policy. A Media Literacy Connection asks students to evaluate how people's lives are impacted by the ways pandemic information is presented in the media.

Standard 4.3: Civic, Political, and Private Life

Distinguish among civic, political, and private life. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.3]

Social distancing sign in Boston
"Social distancing sign in Boston" by Mayor Marty Walsh is licensed under CC BY 4.0

FOCUS QUESTION: What are the Differences and Interconnections Among Civic, Political, and Private lives?

In America's democratic society, people engage in three different types of social life: Civic, Political, and Private.  

Modules for this Standard Include:

  1. INVESTIGATE: People's Lives and Government Responses to COVID-19
    • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: COVID-19 Information Evaluation
  2. UNCOVER: Women's Political Participation Around the World
    • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: Women Political Leaders in the Media
  3. ENGAGE: Should the U.S. Adopt Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Guaranteed Employment as National Policies?

1. INVESTIGATE: People's Lives and Government Responses to COVID-19

Anti-Coronavirus Sign 2020

"Anti-Coronavirus Sign", 2020
by Lucbyhet is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The U.S. response to the 2020 COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic revealed the interconnections and tensions that exist between civic, public, and private life in this country's democratic society. The coronavirus outbreak began in the United States in late January 2020 - the first confirmed case was January 21st; the first reported death was in early February. The disease spread quickly. A national emergency was declared on March 13. By the beginning of April, there were COVID-19 cases in all 50 states with hotspots centered in Washington state and New York City. 

Governments at the national, state, and local level responded, although each had different powers to enact and enforce coronavirus policies. In an effort to limit the spread of the disease, the federal government issued recommendations for social distancing, wearing of masks, and closing of federal offices. Some state governments went further, closing public schools, colleges and non-essential businesses; shutting down parks, lakes and common spaces; and issuing stay-at-home orders for entire communities. Other states chose not to close businesses, restrict travel or issue stay-at-home orders. In every instance, local governments and their police departments were then expected to enforce COVID-19 rules, but lacked the resources to do so without high levels of public cooperation.

Unlike the United States, other nations in the world imposed much greater restrictions on people's freedoms in response to COVID-19. China locked down some 60 million people, many in isolation centers. India subsequently locked down 1.3 billion people, the largest quarantine in world history. In those nations, the national government used the pandemic to order draconian restrictions on people's private lives. 

What are the government's powers to intervene in people's lives in a national emergency? The question impacts people's civic, political, and private lives. The federal government does have public health powers and could issue a national federal quarantine order as was done during the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1919 (Legal Authorities for Isolation and Quarantine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).

However, long-standing constitutional law gives the states and their governors greater legal authority to act in public health emergencies (The Police Power of the States to Control a Pandemic, Explained). The ruling precedent, set by the Supreme Court in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) is that the police power belongs to the states. Quarantine laws, Chief Justice John Marshall said, “form a portion of that immense mass of legislation which embraces everything within the territory of a State not surrendered to the General Government" (as cited in Bomboy, 2020, para. 7). 

Individual citizens also have rights in such situations. Under the 14th Amendment, public health laws cannot be “arbitrary, oppressive and unreasonable” (Constitutional Powers and Issues During a Quarantine, 2020, para. 11). According to the Human Rights Watch (2020), restrictions on people's rights during an emergency must be "lawful, necessary and proportionate" (para. 14). 

The COVID-19 pandemic blended civic, political, and private lives in unique ways. Government action is effective only if there are rules and people see it as their duty to obey them. People must believe it is everyone’s civic responsibility to ensure health and safety for all. At the same time, people have a right, within reason, to make their own choices about their personal lives and private conduct. Politically, people will be more likely to accept restrictions of personal freedoms if they believe they will not lose their jobs or homes and they will have access to needed health care, unemployment funding and essential services during a pandemic. Learn more: Why There Is No National Lockdown.

Finding ways to bring individuals’ civic, political, and private interests together is complicated by everyone's presumed right of privacy (see Patient Right to Privacy Called into Question During COVID-19 Pandemic). Although the right to privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has interpreted several of the amendments to establish this right (Does the Constitution Protect the Right of Privacy?). Students in schools, however, do not have the same wide-ranging privacy rights as do adults in homes and communities (Students: Your Right to Privacy).

Does the increasing use of social media blur the line between people's private life and political life when encountering an event as unprecedented as COVID-19? How do you know? In what ways? As a nation, we are still debating how to effectively balance private and civic interests in a time of a pandemic, a process that has many political dimensions.

Media Literacy Connections: COVID-19 Information Evaluation

There has been an array of fake and false claims in the media about the severity and duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to very different responses by people throughout the country to government-based COVID-19 policies and recommendations (e.g., mask requirements, lockdown, social distancing). 

Have you been able to distinguish fake news about COVID-19 from the truthful and reliable information and guidance? How do you think other students and community members did with evaluating news about COVID-19? The following activities are designed to explore these questions.

Watch on YouTube

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Create an Infographic  
    • What are examples of issues that influence the civic, political, and private lives of students?
  • Research and State Your View
    • Should individuals' rights be restricted during a national emergency to protect the broader public?
    • What restrictions should a government be allowed to impose on individuals and businesses during a national public health emergency, like a pandemic, or a natural disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake?

Online Resources for Civic, Political, and Private Life and the Right of Privacy

2. UNCOVER: Women's Political Participation Around the World

New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote in 1893. Today, Vatican City is the only country where women cannot vote (Saudi Arabia began allowing women to vote in 2015).

Even with the right to vote, women’s entry into positions of political leadership has been slow internationally. At the beginning of 2019, women were more than half of the lawmakers only in Rwanda (61.3%), Cuba (52.2%) and Bolivia (51.3%). According to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked 75th on a “Women in Parliament” list with just 23.5% of female members of Congress (Thornton, 2019).

Consult Women's Power Index, an interactive map from the Council on Foreign Relations that identifies where women have power around the world and explore the interactive arcGIS StoryMap: Women in National Parliaments

You can access a country-by-country breakdown of women's participation in electoral politics at this Gender Quotas Database.

Empowering Women Poster from UNESCO

Empowering Women Poster from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)
"UNESCO's soft power"by UNESCO is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Internationally, 59 countries have elected a woman leader, beginning in 1960 with Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was chosen Prime Minister in Ceylon/Sri Lanka (All the Countries (59) That Had a Woman Leader Before the U.S.). Angela Merkel (Germany), Sahle-Work Zewde (Zimbabwe), Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Katrin Jakobsdottir (Iceland), and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) were among the women leading countries in 2019 (Female Heads of State and Government in 2019).

In 2016 in Iceland, women held 30 of 63 seats in Parliament making it the most gender equal political system in the world without a quota system (The Tiny Nation of Iceland is Crushing the U.S. in Electing Female Politicians).

For a video of interest, check out Women Leaders of the Yukon First Nations (TEDWomen, 2020) that discusses the long history of women leaders among tribal peoples in northwestern Canada. Visit also the website of the Yukon Aboriginal Women's Council.

Gender Quotas and Gender Parity

There are 80 countries in the world that have quotas for women's electoral participation in government (The Washington Post, March 29, 2019). The word "quota" refers to "numerical targets that stipulate the number or percentage of women that must be included in a candidate list or the number of seats to be allocated to women in a legislature" (Women in National Governments Around the Globe, February 8, 2021, p. 4). Most quotas are set at 30% women, but they range from 20% to 40%.

Quotas function differently in different countries. In some places, quotas reserve seats for women in national legislatures. In other places, quotas reserve places for women on election ballots or ask political parties to voluntarily nominate women candidates for elected office.

There are examples where quotas have expanded women's political participation. India has reserved one-third of seats in the local governments for women since 1993; legislation is pending to extend that rule to all state legislatures and the lower house of the national parliament. A 1999 constitutional amendment in France mandated political parties "endorse an equal number of men and women candidates in municipal, legislative and European elections" (French Women in Politics, Lambert, 2001, para. 13). For more than two decades, Belgium has required political parties put equal numbers of women and men on election ballots. In 2014, Mexico began requiring gender parity among candidates for its national legislature.

Would you support gender quotas for local, state, or national elections in the United States? Would you favor voluntary quotas for political parties or gender parity mandated by law?

You can access a country-by-country breakdown of women's participation in electoral politics at Gender Quotas Database.

Impacts of Women's Political Participation and Leadership

"Does increased political participation and leadership among women make a difference in public policies and government actions?"

Summarizing the research from countries around the world, Smith College professor Carrie N. Baker (2023, para. 5-6) found where women have greater political participation, governments are "more likely to support reproductive rights; adopt policies to reduce gender-based violence; support pregnant women, mothers, infants and children; promote equal access to health, infrastructure and education; and address climate change." Men in power are more likely to "engage in warfare and commit human rights abuses."

Research on women's political participation has taken on new immediacy in a time of a global pandemic. A New York Times reporter found female leaders (including Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Angela Merkel of Germany) were more willing to consult a broader range of information sources than male leaders when deciding to implement virus testing, contract tracing, and social isolation measures (Taub, 2020).

In the United States, however, that same report found both female and male Republican governors were slower to implement Covid virus control shut-down measures than their Democrat peers, suggesting political party affiliation was a stronger influence than gender-based dispositions on pandemic policy responses.

For additional information, go to ENGAGE: Can a Women Be Elected President or Vice-President in the United States?

Media Literacy Connections: Women Political Leaders in the Media

Media coverage of women in political roles can vary greatly. Some women are in the news all the time; others are hardly ever mentioned. Those who appear regularly are often presented differently depending on the political lean of different media outlets. 

Social scientists have shown that the media cover women and men political leaders differently. Stories about women in politics more often mention their appearance, clothing, family, and instances of combative behavior, all in line with traditional gender stereotypes. Such gender bias hinders women and helps male leaders politically.

In these activities, you will examine how women political leaders are represented in the media, both in the United States and in different countries around the world.

Watch on YouTube

Suggested Learning Activities

Online Resources on Women's Political Participation Around the World

3. ENGAGE: Should the U.S. Adopt Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Guaranteed Employment as National Policies?

Universal basic income (UBI) refers to regular cash payments (with minimal or no requirements for receiving the money) made to a given population in order to increase people’s income (International Monetary Fund). Debating Universal Basic Income from the Wharton Public Policy Initiative offers more information about this policy.

Image of Dollars
"money"by JCamargo | Public Domain

Guaranteed employment happens when the government becomes the employer for anyone who cannot otherwise find work. The idea is the economy will be better off when there is full employment when all workers are spending the money they earn purchasing goods and services from businesses and other providers (The Federal Job Guarantee: A Policy to Achieve Full Employment, Center on Budget and Policy Futures, 2018). Guaranteed employment was a centerpiece of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Economic Bill of Rights that set forth a "right to employment" as well as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Direct Government Payments to People During the Pandemic

The economic dislocations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the direct government payments to individuals and families as well as the possibilities of universal basic income and guaranteed employment into the wider political dialog. By mid-April 2020, with more than 22 million people out of work, members of Congress including then Senator Kamala Harris and Representatives Maxine Waters, Ro Khanna, and Tim Ryan, among others, were calling for ongoing direct payments to unemployed workers. In his April 2020 Easter Sunday Address, Pope Francis called for governments to consider a universal basic wage. During summer 2020, one in five workers (more than 30 million individuals) were collecting unemployment benefits.

Beginning in April 2020, the federal government has provided 3 rounds of stimulus checks (direct payments to eligible individuals and couples) to provide emergency aid to those impacted by the pandemic, the most recent coming from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021. Under that plan, eligible individuals will receive a $1400 check, couples $2800, and there is an additional $1400 for each dependent child. The American Rescue Plan is huge initiative that will be spending $43,000 every second between March 2021 and when it expires at the end of 2022.

Included in the American Rescue Plan is the Child Tax Credit (CTC) that provides direct payments of at least $250 per child every month up to $3600 a year between July and December 2021. While these payments are more of a tax cut rather than a form of Universal Basic Income, they will impact some 39 million households (about 90 percent of all families with children in this country). You can learn more from the Advanced Child Tax Credit Payments from Internal Revenue Service. The Child Tax Credit was originally created as part of the 1997 Taxpayer Relief Act.

In 2022, with people facing rising inflation, California passed $9.5 billion legislation authorizing economic relief rebates to nearly all its citizens (every individual earning up to $250,000). Other states including Massachusetts began considering relief rebates, but for specific segments of the state's population: low-income workers, reenters, and seniors.

Under what economic circumstances, if any, you would support government relief payments or rebates to people? What groups would you include in your plan?

Different Versions of Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income gained renewed publicity during the early stages of the 2020 Presidential campaign when Democratic candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang proposed giving $1000 a month to every American over the age of 18. Yang, as well as both Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, among others, believe UBI will help address the growing problem of workers being displaced from their jobs by automation.

Other politicians regard UBI as a way to help the large numbers of Americans who are living at or near the poverty level and must work multiple jobs just to get by. The Census Bureau has reported that about 13 million workers in the U.S. have more than one job (Beckhusen, 2019).

There are UBI programs in existence right now. Alaska gives every resident a yearly check from the state’s oil revenue called the Permanent Fund Dividend. In 2018, all residents received $1,600. Since February 2019, the city of Stockton, California paid 125 low-income residents $500 a month through its SEED (Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration) program ("Will 'Basic Income' Become the California Norm?"). The mayor of the city declared that "unconditional cash provides people the agency to make the right decisions for themselves and their families" (Tubbs, 2020, para. 8).

Beginning in November 2020, Chelsea Massachusetts, a majority Latino city across the Mystic River from Boston, will begin giving 2,074 families between $200 and $400 a month to use as those family members decide. The program, Chelsea Eats, which has funding from the Shah Family Foundation ($1 million), the city of Chelsea ($2.5 million), United Way of Massachusetts ($250,000) and Massachusetts General Hospital ($200,000) is scheduled to last for four to six months.

Guaranteed Jobs

As an alternative to UBI programs, 2020 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed a guaranteed government jobs program. Under his proposal, state and local governments would pay people to engage in public works projects related to areas of community need, such as construction of affordable housing, repair and replacement of aging infrastructure, and so on. Workers would be paid $15 an hour and receive paid family and medical leave. Since 2005, in India, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act has provided 100 days of guaranteed employment every year for adult members of rural households who cannot find a job.

Persistant and Pervasive Income Inequality

Income inequality remains a persistent social problem because the rich in the United States are so much richer than everyone else.

 “Income disparities are so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent, according to data analyzed by UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez,” (as cited in Inequality.org, n.d., para. 3), while the top 1% average over 39 times more income than the bottom 90%.

Income inequality in the U.S. has been rising. Since 1980, real income of the bottom 50 percent of the population has grown about 20 percent. Meanwhile, the top 10 percent have enjoyed 145 percent growth (Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, May 5, 2023).

Income inequality, while unfair ethically, also has profound economic consequences for everyone. As one economist noted, "higher levels of income inequality reduces a country’s aggregate economic growth because it decreases household spending and limits educational opportunities for the children of the less well-off. The unequal distribution of income constrains how much the pie grows for everyone" (quoted in Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, May 5, 2023, p. 6).

Providing people with a guaranteed income could make a huge difference for those struggling to survive on a monthly basis.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Envision a More Equitable Society 
    • Universal Basic Income and Guaranteed Government Jobs are proposed as ways to create a more equitable society where everyone has an economic and social foundation for personally productive and meaningful lives. 
    • What steps would you take to create a more equitable society for all?

Online Resources for Universal Basic Income and Guaranteed Employment

Standard 4.3 Conclusion

Civic life is where people exercise their responsibilities by being active members of their community and nation. Political life is where people actively participate in government at the local, state, and national level as voters, engaged community members who protest and lobby for change, and as candidates for and holders of political offices. Private life is where individuals conduct their own affairs in their own ways. INVESTIGATE looked at how the government's responses to the COVID-19 pandemic impacted people's personal lives and freedoms. From the perspective of political life, UNCOVER examined women's political participation around the world. ENGAGE asked if the United States should adopt Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Guaranteed Employment as national economic, social and civic policies.

This content is provided to you freely by Equity Press.

Access it online or download it at https://equitypress.org/democracy/life.