Are You Being Served?
From Rebuilding Civil Society. A Symposium from: The New Democrat, volume 7, number 2 March/April 1995.
Despite Early Positive Grades, AmeriCorps Feels Heat From the Right
Early in the 1992 presidential primary season, Bill Clinton's most reliable applause line was a call for a "domestic GI Bill" that would enable young people to pay their way through college with a year or two of national service. Though his campaign consultants initially scoffed at this "off message" excursion, they soon learned that Clinton's commitment to national service strengthened his claim to be a New Democrat-and also powerfully evoked the party's lost tradition of citizenship as obligation to one's community.
Three years later, AmeriCorps, the programmatic embodiment of the President's campaign pledge, has reached its first-year goal of surpassing the Peace Corps' peak annual enrollment of 20,000 volunteers. A scaled-down version of the President's original proposal, by Administration design and Republican demand, AmeriCorps nevertheless represents the first serious effort to make voluntary national service a reality.
The Bill, Steven Waldman's fascinating new book detailing the progress of AmeriCorps from campaign pledge to legislation, provides a sausage-factory inventory of the corners and deals that were cut to get a national service bill out of the Administration and through Congress. Waldman pays special attention to the hostility that liberals who helped design AmeriCorps manifested to the Democratic Leadership Council's distinctive approach to national service: a strong emphasis on universal participation, a clear linkage to student aid as an earned benefit, and a blunt assertion that volunteers can address some social problems more effectively than bureaucracies.
In retrospect, the reluctance of AmeriCorps' liberal co-creators to justify it as a triple investment-in the value of the service experience to the individual, the value of the service performed to the community, and the value of the post-service benefit to both-helped marginalize the initiative as just another Democratic social program. In addition, the highly variable nature of AmeriCorps-sanctioned efforts-with some programs run by federal agencies, others by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and yet others by state commissions-has made it tough to give the overall program a clear focus.
With each passing day, however, AmeriCorps seems to be evolving toward the original, broad DLC vision. The national corporation was initially a hotbed of enthusiasm for a narrow approach dominated by the "service learning experience" and hostile to the potential of national service as an alternative to government bureaucracies. Corporation President Eli Segal and his staff are now placing great emphasis on evaluating the value of service to the communities where AmeriCorps is operating. All state and local plans for deployment of corps members in the fields of education, public safety, human resources, and the environment are driven by a preoccupation with "getting things done," including organizing neighborhood crime watches, creating "green spaces," building homeless shelters, and helping the home-bound elderly.
At this stage of its development, AmeriCorps is best viewed as a national demonstration program that will supply evidence about the value of national service, and especially about the most effective and cost-efficient way to deploy those who serve. When AmeriCorps comes up for reauthorization in 1996, however, it must take a quantum leap. The Administration should seek to make it a basic life option for young Americans seeking higher education, a basic method for addressing social needs, and a basic model for the reciprocal obligations of citizens and their country.
Threat From the Right
Despite its generally positive evolution thus far, AmeriCorps is under attack from the right. As of this writing, the House Republican leadership appears likely to place national service on its "hit list" of programs to terminate, either this fiscal year or next.
The Republican challenge to AmeriCorps is directed at its fundamental premise. "I am totally, unequivocally opposed to national service," Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was quoted as saying, "It is coerced volunteerism. . . . It's gimmickry." The President's defense of AmeriCorps was equally fundamental, highlighting the contrast between Gingrich's oft-repeated paeans to the social utility of private institutions and his blind opposition to the one government initiative designed to invigorate them.
Gingrich's position on national service makes such a mockery of so much Republican rhetoric that it could become an important wedge issue for Democrats. Are Republicans truly determined to eliminate the "entitlement mentality" underlying government benefits? National service insists on earned benefits. Do Republicans really want to redefine citizenship to imply personal responsibility rather than mere birth status? National service explicitly embodies citizenship as reciprocal obligation. Can Republicans actually develop nonbureaucratic alternatives to the categorical-grant-and-mandate method of delivering domestic services? National service, as Segal puts it, is "a funded non-mandate" based on a competitive, locally controlled model of service delivery.
Gingrich's effort to unfavorably contrast national service with volunteerism echoes the most threadbare conservative complaint. The best response was formulated in 1989 by Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, co-sponsor of an earlier DLC-style national service bill, during a joint appearance on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour with Greg Petersmeyer, at the time President Bush's Points of Light spokesman. Sniffing audibly, Petersmeyer announced that Bush opposed national service because paying people to serve would undermine the spirit of volunteerism. Not missing a beat, Nunn responded: "I'll remember that next time he sends somebody up to the Armed Services Committee to ask for more money for military recruitment incentives."
If Newt Gingrich and his acolytes in Congress believe half of what they say about the threat that crime, social pathology, and family breakdown pose to America, then they should support a national service effort to address these problems, just as they support strong and intelligently deployed armed forces.
Because they do not, Gingrich and company are vulnerable, and wrong. With the battle lines so clearly set, believers in the value of national service should put aside any quibbles they may have with the design or structure of AmeriCorps and take up the cudgels in its defense. reg.
Ed Kilgore is a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute.
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