Carl Horowitz

Who could argue with so noble an idea as “national service?” On the surface, the idea is irresistible. By persuading people, especially youths, to voluntarily devote a portion of their lives to cleaning up city streets, working in homeless shelters, or mentoring children, to name a few worthy activities, we can convey moral responsibility to the next generation, broaden human experience, and make a positive difference in communities across America.

Underlying such noble intentions, however, is the reality that the track record of service programs has been less than stellar. And more problematic, “voluntary” service, as supporters themselves have admitted over the years in unguarded moments, contains more than a whiff of compulsion. That’s why, if fully realized, national service programs would capture an enormous portion of the entry-level labor market and, worse, militarize our national identity.

Such concerns weren’t in evidence at the April 21 signing ceremony of a bill, co-sponsored by Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to commit $5.7 billion over eight years to reauthorize and dramatically expand the AmeriCorps volunteer service program, among other initiatives. The measure, known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, had passed the House and Senate in late March by respective 275-149 and 79-19 margins after relatively sparse debate. The original House version, the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act (GIVE), was led by Democrats George Miller (Calif.) and Carolyn McCarthy (N.Y.), and Republicans Howard “Buck” McKeon (Calif.) and Todd Platts (Pa.).

“We need your service, right now, in this moment of history,” said President Obama in an urgent tone. “I’m asking you to stand up and play your part. I’m asking you to help change history’s course.” Senator Kennedy, speaking in support of the legislation bearing his name, announced, “Today, another young president has challenged another generation to give back to their nation,” a reference to his late brother, John F. Kennedy, who as president in 1961 prodded Congress into creating the Peace Corps.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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