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New Study: New Yorkers Don’t Know Much About American Government, But Most Think They Should

A new Brennan Center survey released today, A Report Card on Civic Literacy, has found that New Yorkers are seriously lacking in basic knowledge about government, politics and the U.S. Constitution.

April 13, 2011

New York – A new Brennan Center survey released today, A Report Card on Civic Literacy, has found that New Yorkers are seriously lacking in their knowledge of government, politics and the U.S. Constitution.

Based on a poll of over one thousand New Yorkers, the report finds that more than eight in ten New Yorkers believe that to work properly, American democracy requires citizens to be knowledgeable about the Constitution, but fewer than two in ten believe they are actually very familiar with the document. And on this latter point, they are correct.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Most New Yorkers believe that the U.S. Constitution is very important to the success of American government.
  • Most New Yorkers believe that for American government to work, citizens must be knowledgeable about the U.S. Constitution, yet very few believe they have this knowledge.
  • In fact, few New Yorkers know more than a little about the Constitution.
    • Only 42 percent of New Yorkers know basic information about the three branches of government.
    • Less than one third of New Yorkers know that creating a stron¬ger federal government was one of the goals of the U.S. Constitution.

The report is released against a national backdrop of declining civic literacy, a rise in national and state education policies that focus mostly on improving math and language arts, and the New York State Board of Regents decision to drop 4th and 8th grade social studies assessment tests, along with a threat to make 11th grade social studies assessments optional.

The report is authored by Eric Lane and Meg Barnette. Eric Lane is a Senior Fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice and the Eric J. Schmertz Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Public Service at Hofstra University School of Law. Meg Barnette is the former Chief Operating Officer at the Brennan Center.

“We badly need to put civics education back at the top of the education agenda,” says report co-author and Constitutional law scholar Eric Lane. “Meaningful democracy requires civic literacy. And as it stands now, New Yorkers are woefully under-informed about some of the most basic government functions and Constitutional ideas.”

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo should ensure that civic literacy is at the top of New York’s educational agenda;
  • Re-commit to a full civics education curriculum in our schools;
  • Public education to reintroduce civic literacy to the wider public outside the classroom; and
  • New York should create a commission that will conduct strategic planning and foster innovation in the area of civics education.

For more information, please contact Jeanine Plant-Chirlin at