The American Magazine Online | 3.31.09
By Alan W. Dowd

Stimulus packages and bailouts are getting all the headlines, but President Barack Obama’s plans for national service are also pricey—and dispiriting for those who believe government has no place in paying for or promoting volunteer programs.

President Obama’s budget calls for $1.13 billion for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), including $160 million-plus from the stimulus package. That’s an increase of $261 million over the current funding level. In fact, Obama projects the CNCS budget to be $2.4 billion by 2014—a 118-percent increase over just 4 years.

The Obama budget aims to grow the CNCS program known as AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 workers, promising “to give more Americans the opportunity to serve.” But all Americans have an opportunity to serve their neighbors and give something back to their country, and millions do so every day—most without any help from AmeriCorps or other government programs. 

In fact, the examples of service are everywhere. Consider the spontaneous response of Americans—collecting and delivering food, offering shelter, giving blood, filling sandbags—when disaster strikes; the church or synagogue that takes food to shut-ins, runs a soup kitchen, or shelters a battered woman; the law firm that does pro bono work for immigrants and the indigent; the physician who quietly provides “charity care”; the volunteer team that builds homes for the homeless and hopeless; the Little League dads and Scout moms who instill values of good citizenship and hard work in young people.

All of these people serve their neighbors and nation—and few, if any, receive the government benefits provided to an AmeriCorps volunteer.

As the Congressional Research Service details, the AmeriCorps benefits package includes a living allowance, an education award to pay for college-related expenses, student-loan forbearance, healthcare coverage, and child care. A 2000 Government Accountability Office report estimated AmeriCorps’ per-participant costs to be $23,426. Even the AmeriCorps website brags about offering “a wealth of benefits.”

The costs of AmeriCorps “volunteering” will jump in the coming years. As the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports in its assessment of the so-called GIVE Act (short for Generations Invigorating Volunteering and Education), which was approved by the House March 18, “Beginning in 2010, the maximum full-time education award would be pegged to the amount authorized for Pell grants under the Higher Education Act of 1965. Those amounts are $6,400 in 2010; $6,800 in 2011; $7,200 in 2012; $7,600 in 2013; and $8,000 in 2014.” That means, in CBO’s understated words, “that over the 2010–2014 period another $2.4 billion would be needed to fund education awards for AmeriCorps participants.”

But this is just the tip of the national-service iceberg. The Obama administration plans to “create new service organizations to meet the nation’s challenges head on,” including “a Classroom Corps to help underserved schools, a Health Corps to serve in the nation’s clinics and hospitals, a Clean Energy Corps to achieve the goal of energy independence, and a Veterans Corps to support the Americans who serve by standing in harm’s way.”

The GIVE Act calls for deploying all of these new service corps, offers scholarships to those 55 and older “who complete at least 500 hours of service in a year in an area of national need,” and sets a goal of 250,000 AmeriCorps, Vista, and other national-service participants by 2014—all in line with the president’s goals. (The Senate version of the legislation, which closely mirrors the GIVE Act and is called the Kennedy Serve America Act, was approved on March 26.)

The CBO estimates that the program’s costs will reach $481 million in 2010 and consume “about $6 billion over the 2010–2014 period.” In other words, GIVE is going to take a lot from the taxpayers.

To fill the ranks of its national-service army, the administration will “set a goal that all middle school and high school students engage in 50 hours of community service a year,” according to the president’s change.gov website. In addition, the president wants “all college students who engage in 100 hours of community service to receive a fully refundable tax credit of $4,000 for their education.”

We are fast approaching a time when volunteering will be neither voluntary nor gratis. That is too bad, because when people are compelled to donate their time, it costs more and means less. As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “To repay gratitude is a most praiseworthy act.” However, “it ceases to be praiseworthy if it is made obligatory.”

Likewise, volunteering ceases to be volunteering—let alone praiseworthy—when it comes with a bill.