In today's society the word citizen has grossly lost its meaning. Webster's college dictionary says this about it "...3. A member of a state or nation, esp. one with a republican form of government, who owes allegiance to it by birth or naturalization;..."1 What defines a citizen; what issues are relevant to citizens; and how do they act in response to these issues?

In order for society to function in a way that it can have citizens and provide them with the rights that citizens possess, citizens must fulfill certain obligations. Citizen involvement is critical to a functional society; rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. A citizen is someone who shows involvement in his or her community, someone who plays a part in holding the society together. Unproductive citizens lead to the eventual collapse of society since there is no one willing to do the everyday chores. A nonproductive citizen is someone who is apathetic, says nothing constructive but complains, and doesn’t pay attention to what is going on around the community. In contrast someone who is a good citizen might for example vote, donate time to community events, and keep him or herself informed, not just locally, but state, nationally, and internationally about things that are important to this citizen. A good citizen is someone who fights apathy and is willing to get involved -- this isn’t to say that a good citizen has to devote every waking moment to community building, but will take some time out of a busy week to do something for the greater good.

Issues that are relevant to citizens include, apathy consisting of but not limited to club drop out and voter turn out, society issues including food issues and worker issues, and media issues. The effects of apathy are evident in community clubs like the PTA, Red Cross, and youth groups: in the last twenty years the membership of such clubs has dropped by one half. The attendance rates have dropped across the board from bowling leagues to Elk's club; no one is fighting apathy anymore. Voter turnout is disappointing as well. In 1960 63.06% of the nation turned out to vote, and again in 1964, 61.92%; in 1992 55.09% turned out, and then in 1996 only 49.08%2. Is voter turn out coming to an all time low because people are no longer interested in politics? Probably not, closer to the truth apathy has been driving people away from the polls since votes don’t really matter anyway.

As for society issues since 1970 the annual pay for CEO's has increased 500%3, in contrast, though the average worker was making the equivalent to $21 an hour in the '70's. Since 1970 the average purchasing power for the normal family has decreased4. The working week has lengthened, average pay has decreased, and now both adults in a marriage situation have to work one or more jobs in order to meet the demands of the bill collectors. On the topic of worker issues, Karl Marx talks about what he calls alienation of the worker: the worker no longer makes the whole product but simply part of it. Similarly when a worker only makes part of the product, that person never gets a sense of satisfactionupon completing the whole thing: they only see their respective piece of the line over and over again. The last example of worker alienation is that many of the workers who make a specific product will never have the opportunity to own the product they make. The ultimate ironic example would be the welder who helps make cars but is too poor to buy one and must take the train to work.

The media is also a problem in that for concerned citizens, the media is a source to find out what is going on in the community. The problem with the media is that it isn't always a good source for local news. The news doesn’t always report everything that locals need to hear to keep a well informed, rounded opinion on issues. Even if the news does report something of use, it is usually too short, drowned out by “fluff” issues that take up most of the time, or lost in the noise of commercials. The media is a citizen issue since the information that is on the news is supposedly for us citizens. In a class activity surveying local newscasts more time was spent on things like "How to boil eggs correctly" and "the Osbourns" rather than local news issues like soldiers who died and spraying for the larva of bugs who naturally carry the West Nile virus.

What should responsible citizens do to support their community? In what ways does a concerned person see the problems and in what ways does that person work to fix them? What do they do in response? There are many ways to become involved; one way of hearing about a problem and helping to work to solve it is to get involved with the local Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and see what they have going on. PIRG has a website (, and on that website one can find out where PIRG has local chapters. A concerned citizen can also find out more by using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Students are entitled to waivers which are good for up to 100 pages of information, and 2 hours of labor when using this resource, in order to get the fee waived you must prove that you are from a qualified school using the information for noncommercial purposes. Most government web sites will have sections on the FOIA and often include frequently requested materials on their site.5 Finally to bring the information full circle, use the knowledge that you learned to teach others about an issue. A good way to inform others locally would be to write in your daily newspapers. Many people use the newspaper to find out what is going on locally, and by using it other concerned citizens might become involved. In the same way mentoring another student is a good way to get youth involved in their community. Involving children in community activities strengthens their sense of belonging and responsibility to the community. A child who grows up being mentored on issues, things to look for will be a better citizen in the future.

A citizen is simply someone who is born in a specific country, but the obligations that the citizen has to his or her nation to make it a better place are great, as Ghandi said "be the change you want to see in the world." As concerned citizens it is our place to hold the community together by doing things for the greater good. As President Kennedy said, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country".

  1. Webster's Dictionary. Second College Edition. David B. Guralnik. Copyright 1974.
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