national service

Time Magazine’s editor, Rick Stengel, makes the case for a large-scale but voluntary national service program in an editorial that accompanies a whole cover issue on service and volunteering. It’s a useful contribution because:

  • It’s a concrete policy recommendation that would respond to a widespread feeling that our communities and democratic institutions have weakened dangerously. Stengel assembles rather specific ideas for federal service programs.
  • Stengel wisely builds on our experience with existing projects. Domestic service goes back to the New Deal, but the most immediately relevant programs are part of AmeriCorps, which was founded in the Clinton years
  • Stengel wisely recommends a voluntary program. He writes, “Americans don’t like to be told what they have to do; many have argued that requiring service drains the gift of its virtue. [The new programs] would be based on carrots, not sticks.” I would add another reason. It is crucial to offer high-quality programs, and we’ll need to build those incrementally. A universal requirement would doom many young people to poor programs, with counter-productive results.
  • Service opportunities for people in their twenties would help them navigate an increasingly long and difficult transition to adulthood.
  • Service has potential appeal to conservatives and liberals, and it’s a big enough idea that it could help to define a campaign or party.
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    2 Responses to national service

    1. Doyle says:

      Peter,

      What’s your view on the relationship between volunteering and policy? When I look at the economic policies of the U.S., and say, some countries in Scandinavia, it seems that we rely much more on private charity to take care of people who would be in difficult straits without assistance. In some circumstances, the need for charity is an illustration of policy failure. Nobody can be against volunteering, which is one reason politicians on both sides can be for it. But many reflective volunteers realize that–in many situations–volunteering is inadequate to resolve the problem that they are addressing by volunteering.

      So…some are driven to become policy advocates, lobbyists, or the like. But–is there any research about this (volunteers moving into policy arenas)?

      Because it almost seems that the emphasis on volunteering can be used cynically to propel an ideology that government shouldn’t be involved in the welfare of all its citizens.

      The Uses and Abuses of service, I suppose.

    2. Peter Levine says:

      This is a big, complex issue and I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers. But I don’t think conservatives should be too confident that volunteering will displace government. I wrote the following in my New Progressive Era book (1999):

      George F. Will, for instance, argues that “swollen government, which displaces other institutions, saps democracy’s strength. There is … a zero-sum transaction in society. As the state waxes, other institutions wane.” …

      Anyone who holds this view must face some awkward facts. First of all, the bigger a country’s government, the more of its citizens tend to belong to private voluntary associations. There is also a strong correlation between the strength of nonprofit groups and the degree of government intervention in the economy. Even taxes are positively correlated to group membership, albeit weakly.

      [My footnote says: “For a sample of 23 countries — mostly industrialized democracies — I have compared the following variables: the percentage of people who belong to at least one group (World Values Survey, 1990-1991); the government’s share of GDP (Penn World Tables, 1992), and the Heritage Foundation’s five-point indices of taxation and government intervention. The correlation between associational membership and government size is .5501; between membership and taxation, it is .0476; and between membership and intervention, it is .5054.]

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