Surveys by the Gallup Poll and Independent Sector show that charitable giving and service are thriving today as seldom before. In 1991, the latest year for which data are available, 94.2 million Americans age 18 and over volunteered in some capacity, with an average of more than 4.2 hours of service per week. The motive force is a spirit of true voluntarism and genuine service.
Drawing on a moral tradition going back to the Bible, and wending through the American founding and the young republic described by Alexis de Tocqueville, this ideal has created what some call a “mediating” institution between the profit sector and the government. Now the government proposes not only to compete with this sector (as in the Vista program), but to invade it directly.
Under President Clinton’s national service bill, politically appointed boards chosen by state governors would funnel federal funds for service jobs to selected private and civic groups. Imagine you run a private charity. If it is chosen to participate in the national service program, you’ve hit the jackpot financially. But if your charity, like the great majority, is not chosen, your cause will find itself trying to compete with the federal treasury. Americans familiar with the notorious Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of the 1970s should find the prospects for unabashed political patronage, and even corruption, obvious.
Incapacitating the nongovernment charitable sector further, the national service bill allows (read, “encourages”) the programs it backs to raise additional funds from private sources. Imagine trying to raise money for a private charity when the government’s endorsed charities, blessed by your state’s governor, can offer donors federal “matching money,” prestige and public recognition as incentives to fund them instead.
National-service-backed groups also will be allowed to add private charitable funds to the government salary offered to attract volunteers. Tax-free national service salaries alone will be about $20,000 annually, including medical and other benefits (such as child care) and the $5,000 college loan payment. With the government-permitted private match, salaries could exceed $29,000.
That is more than most youths could hope to make starting out in the private sector, where the median income of workers, including those with years of experience, is $29,400 for males and $20,500 for females. It is surely far more than most private charities could offer them. Thus, as national service makes selected charitable causes more attractive to volunteers and donors, it automatically will make others less so.
One sees this especially in respect to religious organizations, now the source of roughly half of all charitable activities. Because of understandable concerns over separation of church and state, national service will not support any programs that provide “religious instruction, conduct worship services or proselytize.” But, effectively, that means that a church or synagogue running a youth leadership program or day-care center will be at a disadvantage against comparable national service programs. Quickly, the pressure will be on religious groups to secularize or spin off their service programs to make them appealing to national service.
Moreover, the president’s bill is full of federal paperwork obligations, so the premium, increasingly, will be on “professionalizing” volunteer service in order to obtain federal dollars. But it is the amateur, unbureaucratic charities that typically are the most innovative.
Tocqueville, in praising the energy and distinction of America’s “voluntary associations,” warned: “Once it leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track, government will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny. For a government can only dictate precise rules. It imposes the sentiments and ideas which it favors, and it is never easy to tell the difference between its advice and its commands.”
Indeed, much of the intellectual argument for national service expressly rejects the Tocquevillean tradition. Rutgers Prof. Benjamin Barber, whose contribution to the idea of national service was hailed by President Clinton when he announced the plan, is a critic of limited government, capitalism and representative (“thin”) democracy. He argues instead for institutions of “strong democracy,” including, ultimately, compulsory universal citizen service in governmentrun programs. Most private, independent efforts, he believes, “encourage selfinterestedness.”
Another champion of national service, much admired at the White House, is Michael Brown, co-director of Boston’s City Year. He has been an influential advocate of seeking private as well as public money for national service programs and of the National Service Trust Fund picking private charity programs to back, rather than running service programs itself.
“In this way,” Mr. Brown wrote recently, “the American people should be given the opportunity to fall in love with the idea of the National Service Trust Fund, and not have their affections tied to the success or failure of any specific national service program. . . . Like Social Security, national service will be woven into the fabric of American life.”
Congressional hearings on President Clinton’s national service plan and the public relations campaign advancing it almost always bring forward as spokesmen young, ingenuous participants in private charities. This approach, with idealistic teacher’s aides or student tree-planters making the pitch for a new government program, is affecting. But these admirable youngsters are not the organizers of the scheme, and they are not likely to understand its long-term implications for the voluntary sector as a whole. Neither, apparently, does much of the disorganized opposition.
Opponents of the plan seem to think the main problems are the addition to the deficit ($400 million this year, $7 billion by 1997); the moral contradiction of paying for “service” when no risk or inconvenience is entailed (unlike military service or the Peace Corps); and the failure of the plan to cover more than 1% of the student population with its payment of as much as $10,000 in college loans for two years’ government-approved service. These difficulties are all genuine, but not the greatest danger. The attack on the voluntary sector is.
National service reportedly is on a “fast track” in Congress. However, the voluntary sector and its supporters — other than those organizations that hope to benefit directly from federal funds — apparently do not understand yet what is about to hit them.