Three-quarters of American households give to charity. About 90 million adults volunteer; the value of their time has been estimated at nearly $200 billion.
Impressive as this is, it isn’t enough to meet all of the pressing human needs that face our society. But can this need best be met by a government program like the Corporation for National Service and AmeriCorps? I think not.
Service in America is so vital because it is decentralized and privately organized, addresses perceived needs, and grows out of people’s sense of duty and compassion. Any federal service program must be judged by whether it is consistent with this vision of volunteer service.
The explicit goal of advocates of mandatory service programs is to create a duty to the state rather than to the supposed beneficiaries of service. Moreover, service is to fit into a larger social plan implemented and enforced by government.
A public-sector bias is reflected in the fact that 2,800 of the first 20,000 AmeriCorps participants were assigned to federal agencies. The Department of the Interior used these workers to “update geological and hydrological information for the U.S. Geological Survey” and restore wetlands and wildlife habitat. These jobs, while respectable, resemble traditional government employment rather than “service.” Such activities are not likely to promote volunteerism around the country.
A more subtle problem is the likely long-term effect of federal funding on the volunteer groups and those who normally support volunteer groups. It is, in the abstract, hard to criticize grants to organizations like Habitat for Humanity (which until now refused to accept government funding), Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and the Red Cross. These groups do good work and money given to them is likely to be well spent.
Who, however, should do the giving? Should the IRS empty pockets nationwide, give part of that to a government entity, which gives it to charity? No. Individuals should give to charity directly, not through the IRS. And it is understandable that the Habitat for Humanity could use more full-time supervisors for its volunteers, but not that the Habitat should get them from the government.
Finally, AmeriCorps may have undesirable consequences on volunteers as the government turns “volunteer service” into a job that pays better—all things considered —than other entry-level work. Some participants have privately admitted that they see national service as remunerative, not as an opportunity to help the community.
Indeed, government-funded service plays into what some national-service proponents have denounced as an entitlement mentality—the idea that, for instance, students have a right to a taxpayer-paid education. Some have asked, why should middle-class young people be able to force poor taxpayers to help put them through school? Is the government actually fueling tuition hikes by making this money available? How about addressing the host of other “entitlements” that riddle the federal budget and sap people’s independence? And, are taxpayers likely to get their money’s worth from the service provided by AmeriCorps members?
If AmeriCorps is not the answer, what is? First, government barriers in the way of private individuals and groups who want to help should be torn down.
Second, leaders—lawmakers, clerics, philanthropists, corporate presidents—need to emphasize that the responsibility of helping the needy lies with individuals, families, communities—not government.
Third, tax incentives, particularly tax credits for charitable donations, should be giver. to encourage people to make contributions.
Finally, to the extent that serious social problems remain, government should use narrowly targeted responses to meet only the most serious problems. Let private volunteerism handle the rest.
There is no predetermined definition of service, pattern of appropriate involvement, set of “needs” to be met or tasks to be fulfilled. America’s strength is its combination of humanitarian impulses, private association and diversity. We need service, not “national service.”