Service has a long and venerable history. It has perhaps becomea cliche, but Americans' generosity and penchant to organize tomeet community needs were noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in hisclassic, Democracy in America. And so it continues today.Three-quarters of American households give to charity. Some 90million adults volunteer; the value of their time has beenestimated by the Independent Sector to approach $200 billion.
However, there has long been a strong desire by some to directlyinvolve government. Eight decades ago William James wrote of theneed for a "moral equivalent of war," in which all young men wouldbe required to work for the community. He argued that "the martialvirtues, although originally gained by the race through war, areabsolute and permanent human goods," and that national serviceprovided a method for instilling those same values in peacetime.Anachronistic though his vision may seem today, his rhetoric hasbecome the touchstone for national service advocates: In succeedingdecades a host of philosophers, policy analysts, and politiciansproffered their own proposals for either voluntary or mandatorynational service. And some of these initiatives have been turnedinto law, most recently the National and Community Service TrustAct, which established the Corporation for National and CommunityService.
There are a number of important practical issues surrounding theoperation of the Corporation, but I will leave them to others. Iwant to focus more on the philosophical and theoretical issuessurrounding government-funded "service," and some of the problemsthat may result.
Service is obviously a good thing, which is why so many peoplegive time and money, and why voters tend to respond so positivelywhen 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'sfounding and opportunities for similar kinds of service todayabound. Businesses, churches, and schools all actively helporganize their members' efforts. In a cover story Newsweekreported that "many of the old stereotypes are gone. Forget thegarden club: today working women are more likely than housewives togive time to good works, and many organizations are creating nightand weekend programs for the busy schedules of dual-paycheckcouples. Men, too, are volunteering almost as often as women."
Much more could be done, of course. But what makes service inAmerica so vital is that it is decentralized, privately organized,centered around perceived needs, and an outgrowth of people's senseof duty and compassion. A federal "service" program, especially ifit expands over time, risks teaching that the duty of giving, andthe job of organizing giving (deciding who is worthy to receivegovernment grants and, indirectly, private groups' services)belongs to government rather than average people throughoutsociety. This is, in fact, the explicit goal of advocates ofmandatory service programs, who would create a duty to the staterather than the supposed beneficiaries of service. But even aprogram such as the present one, given the government's dominantrole in society and ability to shape private behavior to conformwith its wishes (in order to receive public funds, in this case),risks perverting America's traditional volunteer ethic. At somepoint service to society could become widely equated with work forgovernment.
Some participants in voluntary organizations share this fear.David King of the Ohio-West Virginia YMCA has warned: "The nationalservice movement and the National Corporation are not aboutencouraging volunteering or community service. The national servicemovement is about institutionalizing federal funding for nationaland community service. It is about changing the language andunderstanding of service to eliminate the words 'volunteer' and'community service' and in their place implant the idea thatservice is something paid for by the government." This distinctionis important for the server, the person being served, and society.In particular, projects that involve the greatest interpersonalcontact, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and other work with "atrisk" youth, are better implemented by volunteers who givesacrificially than by workers who are paid for their efforts. Thelatter may be dedicated, but their commitment is likely to be morelimited. Indeed, a different kind of relationship is likely todevelop if the supposed beneficiary realizes that the helper ismotivated by a desire to give and not to earn a paycheck oreducational voucher.
A second problem is that government service programs treat"public" service as inherently better than private service. Servicecomes in many forms, however. Being paid by the government toshelve books in a library, whether as a formal employee or as anAmeriCorps member, is no more laudable or valuable than being paidby Crown Books to stock shelves in a book store. A host of privatesector jobs provide enormous public benefits - consider health careprofessionals, medical and scientific researchers, businessentrepreneurs and inventors, and artists. Many of these people earnless than they could in alternative work; they have chosen to servein their own way. Yet government programs that equate publicemployment with service effectively denigrate service throughprivate employment.
This public sector bias is reflected in the fact that 2,800 ofthe first 20,000 AmeriCorps participants were assigned to federalagencies. For instance, the Department of the Interior usedAmeriCorps workers to "update geological and hydrologicalinformation for the U.S. Geological Survey" and restore wetlandsand 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 asgovernment employees, such activities are not likely to promotevolunteerism around the country.
Some national service proponents have rightly pointed to theproblem of an entitlement mentality, the idea that, for instance,students have a right to a taxpayer-paid education. Why shouldmiddle-class young people be able to force poor taxpayers to helpput them through school? This is a good question. But public"service" jobs rewarded with a salary and an educational grant areno solution: they merely transform the kind of employment that ayoung person seeks to help cover his educational expenses. There isno real sacrifice involved in, say, informing people about theavailability of FEMA Service Centers, maintaining vehicles,surveying residents about recreational interests, cuttingvegetation, and changing light bulbs in dilapidated schools (allactivities of members of the AmeriCorps*National Civilian CommunityCorps). In contrast, consider the sort of tasks envisoned byWilliam James: young laborers would be sent off "to coal and ironmines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December," and muchmore.
The solution to the entitlement mentality, then, is not to saythat students are entitled to taxpayer aid as long as theyessentially work for the government for a year or two, but torethink who deserves the subsidy. We also need to explore howfederal educational assistance may have actually made it harder forstudents 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 taxpayersare likely to get their money's worth from the service provided.There's no doubt that some good work has and will be done byAmeriCorps volunteers; it is hard for even the government to spendhundreds of millions of dollars without doing some good. But thereis no guarantee that taxpayer-funded "service" will be worth itscost. One problem is the concern over potential job displacement.To avoid putting AmeriCorps personnel in positions that mightcompete with existing jobs ensures that they won't be performingtasks that is obviously of value to the community. While thealternative work might not be bad, it will be second best.
And even attractive-sounding jobs won't necessarily producesignificant social benefits. The Corporation and its supportersspeak grandly of meeting current "unmet social needs." Pastproponents of national service have tossed around figures rangingup to 5.3 million on the number of jobs that need to be done.According to one study, for instance, libraries require 200,000people; education needs six times as many. But as long as humanwants are unlimited, the real number of unfilled social "needs," aswell as unmet business "needs," is infinite. Labor, however, is nota free resource. Thus, it simply isn't worthwhile to satisfy mostof these "unmet" needs. Trade-offs must be made, yet nationalservice treats some jobs as sacrosanct while ignoring other,disfavored tasks.
Indeed, this may be the crux of the national service debate: therole of opportunity costs. Paying young people what amounts to goodcompensation for those just out of school - tuition reliefplus salary, health insurance, and other benefits - topaint "darkened buildings," as suggested by the President, orperform 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 peoplecould do. "Public service" has a nice ring to it, but there is noreason to believe, a priori, that a dollar going to nationalservice will yield more benefits than an additional dollar spent onmedical research, technological innovation, business investment, orany number of other private and public purposes. Nor is having,say, a potential doctor spend a year doing such jobs as surveyingresidents, handling paperwork, and replacing light bulbsnecessarily a good deal - in terms of economics or service.
Another potentially important opportunity cost is the diversionof bright men and women from the military. The end of the Cold Warhas sharply cut recruiting needs, but it has also reduced theperceived national need. As a result, the services have had greaterdifficulty in attracting quality recruits. Yet various programs ofeducational benefits have always been an important vehicle forattracting college-capable youth into the military. Providingsimilar benefits for civilian service is likely to hinderrecruiting for what remains the most fundamental form of nationalservice - defending the nation. Surveys have found that a majorityof potential recruits would consider joining AmeriCorps rather thanthe armed forces because they see it as a better way to gaineducational assistance.
Of course, many worthwhile service work remains to be doneacross the country. But government often stands in the way ofprivate individuals and groups who want to help. Such barriersshould be stripped away, yet the Corporation and its activities maydivert attention from the ways the government hinders privateprovision of important social services. Minimum wage lawseffectively forbid the hiring of dedicated but unskilled people;any increase will make this problem worse. Restrictions onparatransit operations limit private transportation for thedisabled. Regulations also harm other forms of volunteerism. Healthregulations prevent restaurants in Los Angeles and elsewhere fromdonating food to the hungry, for instance. In short, in many casesimportant needs are unmet precisely because of perverse governmentpolicy.
To the extent that serious social problems remain, narrowlytargeted responses are most likely to be effective. That is, itwould be better to find a way to attract several thousand people tohelp care for the terminally ill than to lump that task in withteaching, painting buildings, changing light bulbs, administrativework, and scores of other jobs to be solved by a force of tens orhundreds of thousands. So far the program has had decidedly mixedresults. Among the dubious successes and apparent flops: inCalifornia English classes were cancelled for lack of interest anda health care fair was badly bungled; volunteers in one Floridaprogram complained that they were used for publicity purposes;AmeriCorps members involved with the Georgia Peach Corps spent muchof their time training, traveling, and playing computer games;participants in one Baltimore program provided condom education;Northeastern University won money for an initiative to promoteathletics; the Green Corps devoted 55 participants to "training thenext generation of environmental leaders"; and more.
Further, what purpose, one wonders, does a "Rapid ResponseCorps" fulfill when a major federal agency, FEMA, and large privateorganizations, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, already existto meet the same needs? Talk of responding to "unmet human needs,"as does the Corporation, is a good sound bite but is meaningless inpractice.
Even the best of purposes may not be well-served by AmeriCorpsvolunteers. The willingness to support everything makes it lesslikely that participants will be well-trained for specific tasks.AmeriCorps personnel aren't necessarily the best people to behandling disaster relief. Even what might appear to be simple tasksoften aren't. One participant in Orange County, California, worriedthat she wasn't really prepared to act as a Big Sister to a19-year-old with a neurological condition. The volunteer said thatshe could only hope that she did some good.
In any case, local organizations are not likely to useessentially "free" labor from the federal government as efficientlyas if they had to cover the costs themselves: staff members willhave an almost irresistible temptation to assign work they prefernot to do to outsiders subsidized by the federal government. Forexample, in Orange County, California, the Civic Center BarrioHousing Corp. used AmeriCorps personnel to solicit donations andhandle paperwork.
Jobs That Shouldn't Be Filled
In fact, there are good reasons why many tasks that are notperformed today are not performed, a fact ignored by nationalservice advocates. But the availability of federal money willusually create a pressing "need." A similar problem of perverseincentives has been evident in federal grant programs which allowstates to use national money for projects without much localcontribution. Observes David Luberoff, of the John F. KennedySchool of Government, "One of the lessons of the interstate projectis that in general ... if you don't require that states put up areasonable amount of the cost, you run the risk of building stuffthat is probably not that cost-effective."
Real volunteerism, in contrast, works because the recipientorganization needs to offer valuable enough work to attractwell-motivated volunteers. But Corporation personnel may be moreinterested in working off a school debt than "serving," andespecially than serving in their particular position. In fact, thegovernment risks subverting the volunteer spirit by payingparticipants too much. AmeriCorps members receive benefits ofroughly $13,000 - actually a bit higher in effect, since theeducational voucher and other fringe benefits are not taxed. Andsome AmeriCorps personnel have ended up with more: those at theDepartment of Agriculture earned more than $17,000 in annualbenefits. As a result, "service" is a better financial deal thanmany entry-level jobs. (Unit Leaders and Assistant Unit Leaders mayeven receive overtime pay, which seems rather incongruous for a"volunteer" program.) Thus, as discussions with participantsindicate, some students see national service as a financiallyremunerative job option, not a unique opportunity to help thecommunity. Indeed, much of the President's pitch during thecampaign was framed in terms of naked self-interest: earning credittowards college tuition.
The role of politics is also a concern. Despite the promise ofthe Corporation to be a lean machine, its staff exceeds 500. Theinitial cost per participant was about $27,000, which seems highfor what is supposed to be a program of "volunteers." Of course,only about 80 percent of that was federal money, but it is still nobargain to spend $27,000 of society's money per "volunteer."
Even worse, over the long-term federal involvement is likely topoliticize much of what is now private humanitarian activity. Areport issued last year by Public/Private Ventures noted that theCorporation has taken a very aggressive role in shaping serviceprograms. So far, in contrast, state commissions, which aresupposed 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 iswilling to promote - it has produced a media guide, for instance,which emphasizes marketing. Moreover, one has to wonder if thedesire for favorable publicity was a factor in the decision tosupport the "AmeriCorps Team for the Games" during the Olympics inAtlanta. The group is going to perform tasks typically associatedwith uncompensated volunteerism, like driving those withdisabilities; board members were particularly sensitive about useof the word "games" in the project's name.
A program offering the free (or heavily-subsidized) assistanceof young people is also likely to provide a political honey pot forlocal and state officials and groups alike. And government will beforced to judge the relative worth of different service activities.Politicizing the volunteer process in this way poses a number ofproblems. For instance, the most effective social programs have areligious content, yet enterprises that desire to emphasizespiritual concerns - the Salvation Army, to name an obvious one -are disfavored by government. Equally problematic is the role ofcontroversial political, sexual, and social lobbies. TheCorporation rightly came under severe criticism for funding theACORN housing program which, though it purports to be independentof ACORN, is inextricably linked with what is a partisan, left-wingorganization. In Denver the Cole Coalition forced AmeriCorpsmembers 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 anAmeriCorps-funded newsletter to encourage its members to lobby forthe program.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that government grantshave been misused for political purposes. CETA, with its system offederal funding for local jobs, turned into a veritable patronagemachine in some cities. According to investigative reporter JamesBovard, at one point "in Washington, D.C., almost half the CityCouncil staff was on the CETA rolls." Similar problems are likelyto continue to bedevil the Corporation as it funds activist groupsacross the nation. Indeed, the problem is inevitable so long asgovernment answers the question, what is service?
Finally, money has to be an issue. The federal governmentcontinues to face the prospect of continuing huge deficits. Theonly way to achieve fiscal responsibility is to eliminatelower-priority programs. Although Congress has so far limited theCorporation to less than a half billion dollars annually, thepolitical dynamic of concentrated beneficiary groups versus thelarger taxpaying public has generally led to expanded benefits overtime. But even if the program stays relatively small, it will stillbe difficult to justify spending for a program that, despite itslaudable purpose, is generating such questionable benefits.
What we need instead is a renewed commitment to individualservice. People, in community with one another, need to help meetthe many serious social problems that beset us. There is a role forgovernment: officials should commit themselves to a strategy of"first, do no harm." We need to eliminate public programs thatdiscourage personal independence and self-responsibility, disruptand destroy communities and families, and hinder the attempts ofpeople and groups to respond to problems around them. But theprivate activism that follows needs neither oversight nor subsidyfrom Uncle Sam. Some of the volunteerism can be part-time and somefull-time; some can take place within the family, some withinchurches, and some within civic and community groups. Some mayoccur through profit-making ventures. The point is, there is nopredetermined definition of service, pattern of appropriateinvolvement, 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.