Service has a long and venerable history. It has perhaps become a cliche, but Americans’ generosity and penchant to organize to meet community needs were noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic, Democracy in America. And so it continues today. Three-quarters of American households give to charity. Some 90 million adults volunteer; the value of their time has been estimated by the Independent Sector to approach $200 billion.
However, there has long been a strong desire by some to directly involve government. Eight decades ago William James wrote of the need for a “moral equivalent of war,” in which all young men would be required to work for the community. He argued that “the martial virtues, although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods,” and that national service provided a method for instilling those same values in peacetime. Anachronistic though his vision may seem today, his rhetoric has become the touchstone for national service advocates: In succeeding decades a host of philosophers, policy analysts, and politicians proffered their own proposals for either voluntary or mandatory national service. And some of these initiatives have been turned into law, most recently the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service.
There are a number of important practical issues surrounding the operation of the Corporation, but I will leave them to others. I want to focus more on the philosophical and theoretical issues surrounding government-funded “service,” and some of the problems that may result.
Service is obviously a good thing, which is why so many people give time and money, and why voters tend to respond so positively when politicians talk about “national service.” The issue, however, is service to whom and organized by whom?
Americans have worked in their communities since the nation’s founding and opportunities for similar kinds of service today abound. Businesses, churches, and schools all actively help organize their members’ efforts. In a cover story Newsweek reported that “many of the old stereotypes are gone. Forget the garden club: today working women are more likely than housewives to give time to good works, and many organizations are creating night and weekend programs for the busy schedules of dual-paycheck couples. Men, too, are volunteering almost as often as women.”
Much more could be done, of course. But what makes service in America so vital is that it is decentralized, privately organized, centered around perceived needs, and an outgrowth of people’s sense of duty and compassion. A federal “service” program, especially if it expands over time, risks teaching that the duty of giving, and the job of organizing giving (deciding who is worthy to receive government grants and, indirectly, private groups’ services) belongs to government rather than average people throughout society. This is, in fact, the explicit goal of advocates of mandatory service programs, who would create a duty to the state rather than the supposed beneficiaries of service. But even a program such as the present one, given the government’s dominant role in society and ability to shape private behavior to conform with its wishes (in order to receive public funds, in this case), risks perverting America’s traditional volunteer ethic. At some point service to society could become widely equated with work for government.
Some participants in voluntary organizations share this fear. David King of the Ohio-West Virginia YMCA has warned: “The national service movement and the National Corporation are not about encouraging volunteering or community service. The national service movement is about institutionalizing federal funding for national and community service. It is about changing the language and understanding of service to eliminate the words ‘volunteer’ and ‘community service’ and in their place implant the idea that service is something paid for by the government.” This distinction is important for the server, the person being served, and society. In particular, projects that involve the greatest interpersonal contact, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and other work with “at risk” youth, are better implemented by volunteers who give sacrificially than by workers who are paid for their efforts. The latter may be dedicated, but their commitment is likely to be more limited. Indeed, a different kind of relationship is likely to develop if the supposed beneficiary realizes that the helper is motivated by a desire to give and not to earn a paycheck or educational voucher.
A second problem is that government service programs treat “public” service as inherently better than private service. Service comes in many forms, however. Being paid by the government to shelve books in a library, whether as a formal employee or as an AmeriCorps member, is no more laudable or valuable than being paid by Crown Books to stock shelves in a book store. A host of private sector jobs provide enormous public benefits - consider health care professionals, medical and scientific researchers, business entrepreneurs and inventors, and artists. Many of these people earn less than they could in alternative work; they have chosen to serve in their own way. Yet government programs that equate public employment with service effectively denigrate service through private employment.
This public sector bias is reflected in the fact that 2,800 of the first 20,000 AmeriCorps participants were assigned to federal agencies. For instance, the Department of the Interior used AmeriCorps workers to “update geological and hydrological information for the U.S. Geological Survey” and restore wetlands and wildlife habitat. Jobs like these are respectable, to be sure, but resemble traditional government employment rather than “service.” While AmeriCorps participants may do some good work as government employees, such activities are not likely to promote volunteerism around the country.
Some national service proponents have rightly pointed to the problem of an entitlement mentality, the idea that, for instance, students have a right to a taxpayer-paid education. Why should middle-class young people be able to force poor taxpayers to help put them through school? This is a good question. But public “service” jobs rewarded with a salary and an educational grant are no solution: they merely transform the kind of employment that a young person seeks to help cover his educational expenses. There is no real sacrifice involved in, say, informing people about the availability of FEMA Service Centers, maintaining vehicles, surveying residents about recreational interests, cutting vegetation, and changing light bulbs in dilapidated schools (all activities of members of the AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps). In contrast, consider the sort of tasks envisoned by William James: young laborers would be sent off “to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December,” and much more.
The solution to the entitlement mentality, then, is not to say that students are entitled to taxpayer aid as long as they essentially work for the government for a year or two, but to rethink who deserves the subsidy. We also need to explore how federal educational assistance may have actually made it harder for students to afford college by fueling tuition hikes (the schools, of course, are the ultimate beneficiaries of most student aid).
Equally important has to be the concern over whether taxpayers are likely to get their money’s worth from the service provided. There’s no doubt that some good work has and will be done by AmeriCorps volunteers; it is hard for even the government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars without doing some good. But there is no guarantee that taxpayer-funded “service” will be worth its cost. One problem is the concern over potential job displacement. To avoid putting AmeriCorps personnel in positions that might compete with existing jobs ensures that they won’t be performing tasks that is obviously of value to the community. While the alternative work might not be bad, it will be second best.
And even attractive-sounding jobs won’t necessarily produce significant social benefits. The Corporation and its supporters speak grandly of meeting current “unmet social needs.” Past proponents of national service have tossed around figures ranging up to 5.3 million on the number of jobs that need to be done. According to one study, for instance, libraries require 200,000 people; education needs six times as many. But as long as human wants are unlimited, the real number of unfilled social “needs,” as well as unmet business “needs,” is infinite. Labor, however, is not a free resource. Thus, it simply isn’t worthwhile to satisfy most of these “unmet” needs. Trade-offs must be made, yet national service treats some jobs as sacrosanct while ignoring other, disfavored tasks.
Indeed, this may be the crux of the national service debate: the role of opportunity costs. Paying young people what amounts to good compensation for those just out of school - tuition relief plus salary, health insurance, and other benefits - to paint “darkened buildings,” as suggested by the President, or perform the many other tasks engaged in by AmeriCorps participants, entails forgoing whatever else could be done with that money. Moreover, it involves forgoing whatever else those young people could do. “Public service” has a nice ring to it, but there is no reason to believe, a priori, that a dollar going to national service will yield more benefits than an additional dollar spent on medical research, technological innovation, business investment, or any number of other private and public purposes. Nor is having, say, a potential doctor spend a year doing such jobs as surveying residents, handling paperwork, and replacing light bulbs necessarily a good deal - in terms of economics or service.
Another potentially important opportunity cost is the diversion of bright men and women from the military. The end of the Cold War has sharply cut recruiting needs, but it has also reduced the perceived national need. As a result, the services have had greater difficulty in attracting quality recruits. Yet various programs of educational benefits have always been an important vehicle for attracting college-capable youth into the military. Providing similar benefits for civilian service is likely to hinder recruiting for what remains the most fundamental form of national service - defending the nation. Surveys have found that a majority of potential recruits would consider joining AmeriCorps rather than the armed forces because they see it as a better way to gain educational assistance.
Of course, many worthwhile service work remains to be done across the country. But government often stands in the way of private individuals and groups who want to help. Such barriers should be stripped away, yet the Corporation and its activities may divert attention from the ways the government hinders private provision of important social services. Minimum wage laws effectively forbid the hiring of dedicated but unskilled people; any increase will make this problem worse. Restrictions on paratransit operations limit private transportation for the disabled. Regulations also harm other forms of volunteerism. Health regulations prevent restaurants in Los Angeles and elsewhere from donating food to the hungry, for instance. In short, in many cases important needs are unmet precisely because of perverse government policy.
To the extent that serious social problems remain, narrowly targeted responses are most likely to be effective. That is, it would be better to find a way to attract several thousand people to help care for the terminally ill than to lump that task in with teaching, painting buildings, changing light bulbs, administrative work, and scores of other jobs to be solved by a force of tens or hundreds of thousands. So far the program has had decidedly mixed results. Among the dubious successes and apparent flops: in California English classes were cancelled for lack of interest and a health care fair was badly bungled; volunteers in one Florida program complained that they were used for publicity purposes; AmeriCorps members involved with the Georgia Peach Corps spent much of their time training, traveling, and playing computer games; participants in one Baltimore program provided condom education; Northeastern University won money for an initiative to promote athletics; the Green Corps devoted 55 participants to “training the next generation of environmental leaders”; and more.
Further, what purpose, one wonders, does a “Rapid Response Corps” fulfill when a major federal agency, FEMA, and large private organizations, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, already exist to meet the same needs? Talk of responding to “unmet human needs,” as does the Corporation, is a good sound bite but is meaningless in practice.
Even the best of purposes may not be well-served by AmeriCorps volunteers. The willingness to support everything makes it less likely that participants will be well-trained for specific tasks. AmeriCorps personnel aren’t necessarily the best people to be handling disaster relief. Even what might appear to be simple tasks often aren’t. One participant in Orange County, California, worried that she wasn’t really prepared to act as a Big Sister to a 19-year-old with a neurological condition. The volunteer said that she could only hope that she did some good.
In any case, local organizations are not likely to use essentially “free” labor from the federal government as efficiently as if they had to cover the costs themselves: staff members will have an almost irresistible temptation to assign work they prefer not to do to outsiders subsidized by the federal government. For example, in Orange County, California, the Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp. used AmeriCorps personnel to solicit donations and handle paperwork.
Jobs That Shouldn’t Be Filled
In fact, there are good reasons why many tasks that are not performed today are not performed, a fact ignored by national service advocates. But the availability of federal money will usually create a pressing “need.” A similar problem of perverse incentives has been evident in federal grant programs which allow states to use national money for projects without much local contribution. Observes David Luberoff, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, “One of the lessons of the interstate project is that in general … if you don’t require that states put up a reasonable amount of the cost, you run the risk of building stuff that is probably not that cost-effective.”
Real volunteerism, in contrast, works because the recipient organization needs to offer valuable enough work to attract well-motivated volunteers. But Corporation personnel may be more interested in working off a school debt than “serving,” and especially than serving in their particular position. In fact, the government risks subverting the volunteer spirit by paying participants too much. AmeriCorps members receive benefits of roughly $13,000 - actually a bit higher in effect, since the educational voucher and other fringe benefits are not taxed. And some AmeriCorps personnel have ended up with more: those at the Department of Agriculture earned more than $17,000 in annual benefits. As a result, “service” is a better financial deal than many entry-level jobs. (Unit Leaders and Assistant Unit Leaders may even receive overtime pay, which seems rather incongruous for a “volunteer” program.) Thus, as discussions with participants indicate, some students see national service as a financially remunerative job option, not a unique opportunity to help the community. Indeed, much of the President’s pitch during the campaign was framed in terms of naked self-interest: earning credit towards college tuition.
The role of politics is also a concern. Despite the promise of the Corporation to be a lean machine, its staff exceeds 500. The initial cost per participant was about $27,000, which seems high for what is supposed to be a program of “volunteers.” Of course, only about 80 percent of that was federal money, but it is still no bargain to spend $27,000 of society’s money per “volunteer.”
Even worse, over the long-term federal involvement is likely to politicize much of what is now private humanitarian activity. A report issued last year by Public/Private Ventures noted that the Corporation has taken a very aggressive role in shaping service programs. So far, in contrast, state commissions, which are supposed to help ensure that the overall effort meets local needs, appear to have little influence.
And the Corporation itself has its own agenda which it is willing to promote - it has produced a media guide, for instance, which emphasizes marketing. Moreover, one has to wonder if the desire for favorable publicity was a factor in the decision to support the “AmeriCorps Team for the Games” during the Olympics in Atlanta. The group is going to perform tasks typically associated with uncompensated volunteerism, like driving those with disabilities; board members were particularly sensitive about use of the word “games” in the project’s name.
A program offering the free (or heavily-subsidized) assistance of young people is also likely to provide a political honey pot for local and state officials and groups alike. And government will be forced to judge the relative worth of different service activities. Politicizing the volunteer process in this way poses a number of problems. For instance, the most effective social programs have a religious content, yet enterprises that desire to emphasize spiritual concerns - the Salvation Army, to name an obvious one - are disfavored by government. Equally problematic is the role of controversial political, sexual, and social lobbies. The Corporation rightly came under severe criticism for funding the ACORN housing program which, though it purports to be independent of ACORN, is inextricably linked with what is a partisan, left-wing organization. In Denver the Cole Coalition forced AmeriCorps members to draft and distribute political fliers. Federally-funded “volunteers” were bused to an Earth Day rally in Havre de Grace, Maryland, last year. The Arizona Border Volunteer Corps used an AmeriCorps-funded newsletter to encourage its members to lobby for the program.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that government grants have been misused for political purposes. CETA, with its system of federal funding for local jobs, turned into a veritable patronage machine in some cities. According to investigative reporter James Bovard, at one point “in Washington, D.C., almost half the City Council staff was on the CETA rolls.” Similar problems are likely to continue to bedevil the Corporation as it funds activist groups across the nation. Indeed, the problem is inevitable so long as government answers the question, what is service?
Finally, money has to be an issue. The federal government continues to face the prospect of continuing huge deficits. The only way to achieve fiscal responsibility is to eliminate lower-priority programs. Although Congress has so far limited the Corporation to less than a half billion dollars annually, the political dynamic of concentrated beneficiary groups versus the larger taxpaying public has generally led to expanded benefits over time. But even if the program stays relatively small, it will still be difficult to justify spending for a program that, despite its laudable purpose, is generating such questionable benefits.
What we need instead is a renewed commitment to individual service. People, in community with one another, need to help meet the many serious social problems that beset us. There is a role for government: officials should commit themselves to a strategy of “first, do no harm.” We need to eliminate public programs that discourage personal independence and self-responsibility, disrupt and destroy communities and families, and hinder the attempts of people and groups to respond to problems around them. But the private activism that follows needs neither oversight nor subsidy from Uncle Sam. Some of the volunteerism can be part-time and some full-time; some can take place within the family, some within churches, and some within civic and community groups. Some may occur through profit-making ventures. The point is, 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.