On September 11, 2008, both major presidential candidates traveled to New York City, where some of the nation's most prominent corporations and foundations were sponsoring a forum on civilian community service. September 11 is a solemn day, rich with patriotic meanings, when politicians are expected to demonstrate their commitment to essential American values. But they can choose which values to emphasize, from military strength to prosperity to civil rights. This year, Barack Obama and John McCain joined such luminaries as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hillary Clinton to affirm the value of service. More concretely, they endorsed a bill, the Kennedy-Hatch "Serve America Act of 2008" (S.3487), that would dramatically expand federal support for civilian service programs. Given their support and the leadership of Senators Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy, the Serve America Act seems destined for passage--although perhaps not for full funding at a time of economic and fiscal crisis.
The bill has many sections and features, but two of its major objectives are to get at least 250,000 Americans involved in federally supported service every year and to institutionalize "service-learning" (the combination of community service with academic study) in school systems and colleges. Kennedy-Hatch would provide significant new funding to programs that recruit economically disadvantaged Americans to participate in service and service-learning, and it would focus volunteers' work on three social objectives: reducing the dropout rate, improving public health, and conserving energy.
In current legislative parlance, "service" refers to a variety of programs funded by the government but often organized by private contractors (see sidebar on page 5). To a philosopher who wants to consider whether government-funded service is a good thing, the heterogeneity of these programs--with their diverse purposes, constituents, and methods--poses a challenge. Nevertheless, "service" constitutes a field of practice, with many overlapping networks of alumni and leaders, similar funding sources, frequent meetings and conferences, a common genealogy, and a shared political agenda--currently focused on the passage of
Kennedy-Hatch. We ought to be able to say whether supporting such fields of practice is good public policy, and whether it is wise to shift such fields by preferring some of their elements over others. Kennedy-Hatch seeks to alter the field of service through the two proposals mentioned above: investing in lower-income volunteers and focusing on three major social purposes. Does an expanded civilian service initiative with these priorities merit government support?
Addressing National Challenges
One major argument for service programs is that federally financed volunteers can effectively address public problems. If Kennedy-Hatch becomes law, it will put Congress on record as saying that "focused national service efforts can effectively tackle pressing national challenges, such as improving education for low-income students, increasing energy conservation, and improving the health, well-being, and economic opportunities of the neediest individuals in the Nation."
It remains to be seen whether this proposition is true. AmeriCorps has sometimes tried to estimate its members' impact on the neighborhoods they serve; a 1995-96 evaluation of Learn & Serve America concluded that each hour volunteered by students was worth about $8.76 to their communities. But such a statistic is not especially helpful in assessing a program's ability to address "pressing national challenges." Perhaps a dollar spent on tax credits would have more impact on energy conservation than a dollar spent to recruit volunteers to weatherize homes. To take another example, consider YouthBuild, a job training program for disadvantaged youth ages 16 to 24. YouthBuild members learn construction trades by building houses for people in their communities. …