Magazine article Insight on the News

National Service Will Weaken Volunteerism

Magazine article Insight on the News

National Service Will Weaken Volunteerism

Article excerpt

In September, President Clinton launched AmeriCorps, his domestic-service Peace Corps. This national service program, which grew directly out of the 1992 presidential campaign, is a key feature of the New Democrat agenda of "responsibility rather than entitlement."

The president's call for a "season of service" -- 20,000 young AmeriCorps volunteers working in education, crime prevention and environmental and social programs -- may sound praiseworthy. But before Americans get swept up in events stressing the nobility of this new program -- choreographed at taxpayer expense by the public-relations firm of Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart Inc. -- Americans should consider its costs.

First, AmeriCorps is no shoestring charity. It is a large, new federal program that will cost $1.5 billion during the next three years. The average AmeriCorps "volunteer" will receive a $7,400 annual stipend, plus a maximum of $9,450 toward payment of higher education debts. That's $7.27 an hour. And this price tag does not include the program's automatic health- and child-care benefits -- or the cost of its Washington-based bureaucracy,

There's another problem: AmeriCorps is not necessary. The Labor Department estimates that nearly 3 million Americans from ages 18 to 25 (the age of eligibility for AmeriCorps) already serve as unpaid volunteers, especially through religious organizations, which have long been the backbone of community activism. Overall, roughly 80 million Americans are active volunteers -- that's almost one-third of the population. And many organizations have expanded night and weekend volunteer opportunities to better enlist the energies of working people and students. Real voluntary service to the community is alive and flourishing.

AmeriCorps likely will do more to disrupt than supplement these efforts. A federal program that reimburses "volunteers" can only discourage people from offering their time for free. And local philanthropic and community organizations may divert resources from genuine needs as they become supplicants for the federal subsidy of an AmeriCorps volunteer. In this process, local control will take second place to the rules and priorities governing federal grant-seeking.

The irony at the heart of AmeriCorps is that it tries to replicate a successful private-sector activity -- voluntary community service -- with another government initiative modeled on failed social-welfare programs. …

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