In his 2003 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush urged Congress to reconsider the Citizen Service Act of 2002, which would reform and reauthorize several national service programs including AmeriCorps, VISTA, and Learn & Serve America.
Working with the Bush Administration, lawmakers should propose a reformed legislative package that builds on the changes proposed in last year's legislation, takes additional steps to correct the infringement of religious liberty in existing laws, and fundamentally transforms the current government-centered national service agenda into a true citizen service initiative.
The government-oriented view of national service contrasts sharply with the idea of a "citizen service" that protects and strengthens civil society, focuses on service rather than social change, promotes true volunteerism, and addresses real problems. The following five principles of citizen service should be at the heart of the Citizen Service Act.
- Protect and
strengthen civil society
The primary goal of citizen service should be to protect and strengthen civil society, especially the non-governmental institutions at its foundation. Unlike government programs, the personal involvement, individual generosity, and consistent participation that are the hallmarks of private philanthropy have a ripple effect of further strengthening the fiber of civil society.
- Focus on
Americans have always exemplified a strong sense of civic responsibility and humane compassion toward their neighbors and the less fortunate in their communities and have traditionally supported and participated in a vast array of private service activities. The objective of citizen service legislation should be to promote a renewed commitment to this great tradition of individual service.
- Promote true
President Bush's first objective for a Citizen Service Act is to "support and encourage greater engagement of citizens in volunteering." To be truly voluntary, an action must be intentionally chosen and done by one's own free will, without compulsion or external constraint and "without profit, payment or any valuable consideration."
- Address real
If the federal government is to encourage citizen service, and if policymakers want to foster a culture of responsibility toward the less fortunate, service programs should be targeted to address serious problems where there is authentic need for assistance. In addition, such assistance should be provided in accordance with the larger traditions of compassionate service.
- Minimize the
role of government
Government can play an important role in revitalizing citizen service, but that role should be limited and indirect. Citizen service that is paid for and organized by the government encourages individuals and associations to look to the state for assistance. Likewise, the government's funding of charitable organizations to pay for volunteer time reduces the need for private-sector support, making it more likely that citizens will abdicate their civic responsibilities. Reform should reduce government's financial, administrative, and regulatory role in civil society.
Policymakers should carefully review and include as a starting point useful reforms proposed in the 2002 legislation. They should also act to remove barriers in existing national service laws that prevent faith-based groups from making employment decisions or choosing volunteers on the basis of religion. More fundamental changes are required, however, to transform today's national service into a citizen service initiative. Specifically, Congress should:
the stipends and benefits for AmeriCorps participants, thus ending the program as an employment program. Policymakers could allow AmeriCorps to continue to award modest educational grants, not as a financial incentive but as a nominal award for service completed.
VISTA on helping to solve the most important poverty-related problems and change VISTA from a federally operated program (in which the federal government selects and supervises members) to a federally assisted program to give sponsoring organizations greater control over recruiting and selecting participants and more flexibility in program design and delivery.
the Learn & Serve America program. If it elects to keep a smaller program that awards grants to encourage and support traditional notions of community service, Congress should not endorse or underwrite service-learning methods. Any program authorized to replace Learn & Serve America should focus on more appropriate activities.
spending on national service programs, investigate administrative problems in the AmeriCorps program, act to organize and minimize an increasingly complicated and confusing national service bureaucracy, and treat citizen service as a short-term stimulus package for revitalizing civil society rather than a permanent federal program.
Now, more than ever, at a time when Americans are volunteering and engaging in service to their country in unprecedented numbers and unprecedented ways, policymakers must reject the model of government-centered national service. Volunteer service that is organized and paid for by government goes against the American character and threatens to weaken the private associations that have always been the engine of moral and social reform in this country.
Policymakers should promote a true citizen service that is consistent with principles of self-government and harmonious with a vibrant civil society. Congress should advance a service agenda based on personal responsibility, independent citizenship, and civic volunteerism--all prerequisites for building what President Bush has called a "new culture of responsibility."
Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.