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National Service: Now Bigger Than Ever

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

President Obama chose the SEED School, a Washington, D.C. public boarding school for troubled low-income children, as the site of the ceremony. Among those in attendance were former President Bill Clinton, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. That same day the president nominated Maria Eitel, a Nike Inc. vice president, to run the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), created in 1993 under President Clinton.


Supporters have something very ambitious in mind. For starters, the law would more than triple the number of available AmeriCorps volunteer slots from the current 75,000 to 250,000 by fiscal year 2017, with 50 percent or more of these positions eventually being full time. The measure also would tie college tuition aid to demonstrated favorable community impacts; create a pilot Social Innovation Fund; expand eligibility for the Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent programs; and expand participation by military veterans.

President Obama has made clear his view that we’re all in this together. In a guest editorial for the March 30 Time magazine, “A New Era of Service,” he wrote:

"(W)hile our government can provide every opportunity imaginable for us to serve our communities, it is up to each of us to seize those opportunities. To do our part to lift up our fellow Americans. To realize our own true potential by hitching our wagon to something bigger than ourselves."

But one has to wonder about the necessity of bringing the federal government into the fray. The desire to lend a helping hand remains well and alive. CNCS estimated that in 2007 some 61 million Americans volunteered a combined 8.1 billion hours of service through churches, schools, charities and other organizations. As corporation-funded activity constituted only a fraction of these figures, common sense should dictate that the new legislation has motives beyond volunteering.

National service in this country, in a real sense, is a long coda to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Going back further, it also can be seen as an extension of philosopher William James’ famous 1906 address, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” In its current and presumably benign form, the focus is on voluntarism. But underneath, as always, the theme is obligation. Each of us, the argument goes, has a responsibility to give back to our country what we have received. The Peace Corps and its domestic equivalent, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), each were founded in the Sixties on this rock of collective moral reciprocity.


For years thereafter, national service advocates explicitly made their case along this line. Their ranks included not simply “liberals,” but also social conservatives in both major parties who viewed our nation as having swung too far toward individualism at the expense of civic duty. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), formed after the 1984 election debacle, for example, was an explicit effort to move the party away from the Left. The authoritarianism underlying the DLC’s “centrism” came out clear in a 1988 council stating, “Only if it were mandatory and universal could national service impose a roughly equal burden on all citizens.”

The DLC was part of a larger intellectual infrastructure. Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos was, if anything, more forthright. At a Hoover Institution-sponsored symposium nearly two decades ago, “National Service: Pro & Con,” he argued: “We have a military to meet a pressing national need, not to mature young people or improve their character. The same standard must apply to civilian service.” He complained, with barely concealed disgust, that libertarian-conservatives and liberals each have come to “de-emphasize the role of the citizen duties in favor of a highly individualistic rights-based ethic.” In the same published volume, Rutgers University political scientist Benjamin Barber declared, “Service to the nation is not a gift of altruists but the duty of free men and women whose freedom is wholly dependent on and can survive only through the assumption of political responsibilities.” Donald Eberly, a social conservative and a key influence upon the formation of the Peace Corps, argued similarly, “So let us join the need with the resources and launch an updated version of (William) James’ moral equivalent of war.”

William James’ speech, unintentionally, constitutes perhaps the best case ever made against national service. Calling national service a necessary “blood-tax,” an equal sharing of “toil and pain and hardness,” he made clear militarism was no mere metaphor. He urged: “If now – and this is my idea – there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population…the injustices would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow.” The desire for a civilian-military fusion has remained alive since. Congressman Pete McCloskey, R-Calif., an ex-Marine, introduced a proposal 30 years ago linking domestic citizen service with military preparedness. And Professor Moskos, a decorated Army veteran who died last year, made this admission to Time magazine in 1987: “If I could have a magic wand, I would be for a compulsory system.”


This sort of advocacy came to fruition in limited form in 1989. Members of Congress introduced a raft of service proposals, the most prominent of which was a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Rep. Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., to require young adults to complete a full term of military or equivalent civilian service to be eligible for federal college aid. Toward this end, the measure proposed a massive employment program. National service, remarked Senator Nunn at the time, is “an idea whose time has come.” The Nunn-McCurdy plan, which in fact borrowed heavily from Moskos, gave way to the Bush administration’s less intrusive “thousand points of light” proposal, which provided financial support for local service organizations, but without paying wages.

The election of Bill Clinton (a former DLC head) as president triggered an expansion. In his first year in office, Congress, at his behest, created the Corporation for National and Community Service to put various programs under a common umbrella, subsidize college tuition for those completing service, and expand areas of program eligibility. One state, Maryland, already in 1992 had enacted a law mandating “service-learning” participation as a prerequisite for high school graduation. Clinton didn’t mask his intentions. In a September 1994 interview with USA Weekend he stated: “I would like to see every state adopt as part of its minimum school standards a community service requirement.” He didn’t get his wish, but CNCS-funded activity, during and after his presidency, became a juggernaut. The corporation now assists, directly or indirectly, some 4 million persons. This total includes not only 75,000 AmeriCorps members, but also nearly 500,000 Senior Corps volunteers, 1.1 million Learn and Serve America students, and 2.2 million additional community volunteers. President George W. Bush’s main legacy was to add a “faith-based” element to the mix.

The Obama-McCain race was a win-win proposition for advocates of national service. Obama’s goals, which he outlined in an editorial in the September 22, 2008 issue of Time, are now enshrined in the new Kennedy Act. But how different would things be if John McCain had been elected president? On the same page of that issue, the Arizona senator stated in his own guest op-ed, “Inspiring Citizens to Do More”:


"As President, I will create a Service to America initiative to bolster the teaching of American history and civics education and to inspire Americans to serve causes greater than their self-interest. Civic participation over a lifetime, working in neighborhoods and communities and service of all kinds – military and civilian, full-time and part-time, national and international – will strengthen America’s civic purpose."

In lieu of concerted opposition – a commodity in short supply – national service can be guaranteed to have a long life. But before leaping further we ought to take a quick look at the track record of the crown jewel of national service, AmeriCorps. Some examples:

• A General Accounting Office audit of 93 AmeriCorps grantees released in August 1995 found that “programs operated by nonprofit, state and local agencies received about $25,800 in cash and in-kind contributions per participant…in contrast to $31,000 for federal agency grantees.” That’s an expensive proposition either way.

• A study of the program for the nonprofit group monitoring organization, Independent Sector, found that AmeriCorps recruits showed only a 3.5 percent increase in hours of actual volunteer activity by participants.

• The program to some extent has politicized charitable activity. One early project was a $1.1 million grant to ACORN Housing Corporation, a subsidiary of President Obama’s favorite nonprofit group. Recruits were assigned to lobby for legislation, collect dues, register voters and engage in demonstrations. Abuses were so widespread that AmeriCorps’ Inspector General ordered the grantee to return the money. ACORN and similar groups no doubt are savoring the possibilities of huge infusions of federal money with minimum oversight.

Even more troubling than programmatic inefficiency is the latent intent of supplanting the private sector in attracting entry-level labor. Advocates of national service such as John Bridgeland, former director of President George W. Bush’s domestic policy council, insist that fears of the program politicizing charitable activity and adding to bureaucracy are way overblown. But from the start, the federal government has used AmeriCorps as a de facto low-wage hiring program, placing recruits in such agencies as the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Legal Services Corporation. With the Obama White House seeking a boost in the Corporation for National and Community Service budget from the present $260 million to $1.3 billion in fiscal 2010, expect a lot more of this, especially given that the private sector isn’t exactly in a hiring mood right now.


National service advocates say service is a good way to gain valuable work experience and address national needs at the same time. But what is wrong with private-sector employers deciding which jobs need to be done and at what levels of compensation? Moreover, why should volunteer work of any sort require a subsidy? The very idea of voluntarism is at odds with acts of compulsion (i.e., taxation) to fund it.

Defenders of national service further insist that shortcomings are inevitable in any program; cherry-picking a few negative examples can’t disguise an overall pattern of success. To which one should respond: Yes, some of the money has done good. That is inevitable. But in the end it is not for government, least of all the federal government, to guide how people ought to donate their time and energy toward community betterment. Such volunteer programs “work” only because they have applied to a small portion of the nation. Full participation only can be achieved by compulsion.

The drive to infuse low-wage community service with patriotic impulses is nothing new. President Obama is merely the latest in a long line of advocates. His support for expansion of national service is heavily shaped by his own days as a community organizer. “I found my calling working in a community devastated by steel-plant closings,” he wrote last year. He wants service programs to enable millions of others to find their calling. Unfortunately, the line between service and servility is often blurred. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act would blur it further.

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