Obama, McCain tout community service

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

Nothing could possibly be wrong with political leaders dedicating themselves to increase volunteerism in the U.S. through national service programs, right?

The presidential candidates of both parties took the stage at the Service Nation gala on September 11 pledging in strikingly similar language their commitment to incentives for people of all age to commit to community service.

On the heels of that program, Democratic U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced a bipartisan bill, designed to accommodate the perspectives of both parties in one legislative vehicle, with the core purpose of increasing the number of national service participants to 250,000.

That’s exactly the target number long contained in BarackObama’s “Plan for Universal Voluntary Citizen Service” campaign platform, unlike John McCain’s more recent vintage “Renewing America’s Civic Purpose” plank.

Both presidential candidates would establish new “corps” in AmeriCorps.

Obama calls for a Classroom Corps, Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, Veterans Corps, and Homeland Security Corps, plus a non-AmeriCorps Green Jobs Corps

McCain’s newer “Renewing America’s Civic Purpose” plant adds new AmeriCorps “accounts” to include an Education Corps, Community Health Access Corps, Clean Energy Corps, Opportunity Corps, and Reserve Corps.

Both candidates’ plans would support an expanded Peace Corps, incentives for Baby Boomers to serve, and ramped-up incentives for military service.

No one should mistake this spate of policy proposals and think that Americans aren’t volunteering.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, 61 million Americans volunteered during the past year, a number not inflated by disaster-related volunteering as a result of Katrina.

Although the national rate of volunteering is slightly down over the past couple of years, it is much higher than it was in the late 1980s.

Because we count volunteering as time spent working for actual organizations, as opposed to simply helping people regardless of formal structures, there’s actually a significant undercount of volunteering in racial and ethnic populations.

For all the good work of volunteers, remember that volunteer labor, paid little through stipend or not at all, does not take the place of governmental-funding commitments to tackle social problems, or of well-funded nonprofits with full-time staff to do the job day in and day out.

Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift recently attributed the impulse to national service to federal budget cuts making “paid volunteers…a necessity.”

This nation is not going to solve social problems on the cheap, through thousands of points of light or other substitutes for public sector commitment and investment.

At the candidates’ Service Nation forum, Obama cited his experience as a community organizer, but didn’t note that what he was doing was to organize for governmental action and resources.

Such public-policy advocacy is generally not a part of governmentally incentivized community service programs.

McCain’s concept of volunteers taking the place of government programs was a little clearer.

He cited the multitudes of Americans “frustrated” with government and created the imaginary scenario of “faith-based organizations [and] other volunteer organizations that…have nothing to do with government are amongst the most successful.”

McCain might want to remember that, unlike his vision of a cadre of “very, very successful organizations that have no dependence whatsoever on our federal government,” a large swath of the resources that support nonprofits and get delivered by nonprofits are governmental dollars and programs.

Government grants and fees for service account for 30 percent of public charities’ revenues, many mistakenly classified as disconnected to government by people who don’t look closely at nonprofits’ income sources.

With Obama as a cosponsor and McCain on record saying he’d likely support it, the Kennedy/Hatch “Serve America Act” offers something for nearly everyone — university-based service learning programs; a national commission aimed at spurring “social entrepreneurship and social enterprise;” pilot funds for replicating “proven effective solutions developed by social entrepreneurs and other nonprofit community organizations” (the legislation implicitly classified entrepreneurs and nonprofits as separate categories); and even “encore service” opportunities for over-50 baby boomers.

There nothing in the least wrong with getting people connected to serving their communities, but don’t substitute community service for the governmental commitment needed to rectify the social and economic ills ravaging this nation, don’t substitute paid or unpaid volunteers for the need to create and support decently paid careers in the nonprofit (and public) sector, and don’t confuse service with the critically important functions, Sarah Palin notwithstanding, of community organizing and

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly.

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