I've spent much of my life working to get Americans more engaged, yet I'm dismayed by George W. Bush's embrace of volunteerism, like his co-chairing of the April 26-28th National Youth Service Day. Community service should draw support across political lines. I'm delighted that AmeriCorps has been so spectacularly successful that it now draws bi-partisan support. Men like Republican Senator Rick Santorum no longer dismiss it as taxpayers paying "a bunch of hippie kids to sit around the campfire, holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya.'" But it's the height of duplicity for an administration that's the most hostile toward the poor and powerless in twenty years to imply that everything will be fine if we all just voluntarily pick up the slack. For those of us who've long advocated getting both youth and adults more involved in community service, it's tempting to praise Bush's calls for 4,000 hours of service for giving a seal of approval to our efforts. But his benevolent words demand nothing of his administration, and change no budget priorities. Worse yet, they take the commitment and compassion of America's community volunteers, and misuse it to give political cover for choices that attack the very communities that the volunteers serve. Each time we use his endorsement, we're implicitly giving him ours, because quoting is a badge of respect.
"We want to be a nation," Bush's speechwriters proclaim, "that serves goals larger than self." Meanwhile his administration has repeatedly contradicted these caring sentiments by cutting funding for child abuse prevention, after-school programs, community policing, low-income childcare and health care, training for dislocated workers, a Boys and Girl's Club public housing program, and a program that teaches low-income children to read. Meanwhile, he funded a tax break that gave $75 billion a year to the top five percent of Americans. Bush encourages us to clean up our local parks and rivers, then slashes the EPA budget, abandons a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide, pulls out of the Kyoto global warming treaty, and pushes an energy policy written by companies like Enron. It's hardly a record of compassion.
The alternative to this hypocrisy is an ethic of accountability. We don't want to resemble a Stanford student, who explained how he'd learned more from his community volunteering than from all his courses in school. "I hope that one day," he said, "my grandchildren will get to have the same experience working in the same homeless shelter that I did." Friends gently reminded him that they were working for a future when no one in a country this wealthy would need to sleep in a shelter.
Millions of Americans participate in voluntary activities. We serve in soup kitchens and shelters, conduct literacy programs, coach Little League, read to otherwise isolated hospital patients or the elderly, work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, and run volunteer fire departments. All of this is good, yet most of us find it easier to help our fellow citizens one-on-one than to exercise our democratic voice, or challenge destructive policies sold with benign words. We're far more likely to volunteer to meet a specific human need than to help elect wiser leaders; pressure major economic, political, and cultural institutions to act more responsibly; or otherwise try to influence the larger public choices that dictate our common destiny.
Volunteer efforts can help us regain our sense of connection, offer lifelines of support to beleaguered communities, and change people's lives. Like Gandhi's "constructive program," they can create new alternatives to address urgent problems, such as the pioneering work by Habitat for Humanity in building affordable houses. Yet during Habitat's twenty-five year history the situation of those who need affordable housing has gotten worse-because so many common programs have been cut.
The former director of Boston's powerful youth involvement program, City Year, compared the situation of community service volunteers to people trying to pull an endless series of drowning children out of a river. Of course we must address the immediate crisis, and try to rescue the children. But we also need to find out why they're falling into the river--if only because no matter how hard we try, we lack the resources, strength, and stamina to save them all. So we must go upstream to fix the broken bridge, stop the people who are pushing them in, or do whatever else will prevent them from ending up in the water to begin with.
I see too many compassionate individuals trying to stem rivers of need, while upstream, national political and economic leaders open the floodgates to widen them. We distribute two dozen loaves of bread to the hungry in one neighborhood. Then Congress makes a decision that robs every poor community in the country of 500 loaves. We build five houses with Habitat, while escalating rents and government cutbacks throw a hundred families into the street. We laboriously restore a single creek while a timber company clear-cuts an entire watershed. As the Reverend William Sloane Coffin once said, "Charity must not be allowed to go to bail for justice." The behavior of society's major political and economic institutions is too consequential to ignore. As contributions to non-profits decline in the wake of economic recession, we see the fallacy of exempting those who have the most from the responsibility of contributing to the whole. We're in trouble if what once were shared responsibilities are now made private--and voluntary.
So let's honor the volunteers, but not use their hard work and commitment to excuse destructive national choices. Let's get involved, but then ask what common choices are creating the wounds we work to heal. Let's listen to those who come to the food banks and homeless shelters, battered women's centers and Boys and Girls Clubs. Let's learn about their lives, then ask the hard questions about who gains and who loses in America, and why we allow so much needless suffering and pain. Instead of hiding behind sentimental phrases about how we all care--what I'd call 1,000 points of hype--let's join with those whose voices have been silenced. That would be the real service to America--and to our common humanity.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St Martin's Press www.soulofacitizen.org) and three other books on citizen involvement. He's written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and International Herald Tribune