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Government and Volunteerism

David Callahan

A longstanding gripe of conservatives is that big government has muscled aside civil society, taking on jobs -- like providing a safety net -- that are better left to charity. 

I happen to be somewhat sympathetic to that viewpoint. While it's obviously true that charity is incapable of handling big social problems -- which is why, for instance, a quarter of seniors were poor 50 years ago before Medicare and the expansion of Social Security -- it's also true that turning over human compassion to government bureaucracies is unlikely to produce the best results. The existence of an official safety net tends to let we individuals off the hook for helping our fellow citizens in very direct and personal ways -- say, by taking in a homeless person -- because we know that our tax dollars are paying for things like social services and homeless shelters. 

Of course, though, the state vs. civil society is a false choice. These two sectors work together intimately and the real question is how to better foster such collaboration through smart public policy. That question is worth reflecting upon as we enter National Volunteer Week. 

As it happens, volunteerism is a great example of how government programs have nurtured the strength and dynamism of civil society and how, in turn, such a stronger civil society has advanced the common good and the goals of government. 

Government in the U.S. has a long history of promoting volunteerism, going back to the citizen militias of the early Republic, the volunteer nurses of the civil war, volunteer fire departments that date back over two centuries, the civil defense programs of the 20th century, and various components of the New Deal.

Starting in the 1960s, with the Peace Corps and then other programs like VISTA, government stepped up its encouragement of volunteerism. But the real revolution in this arena has come just in the past twenty years. President George H.W. Bush, who spoke of a "thousand points of light," signed legislation in 1990 that created a new federal agency to encourage volunteerism, the Commission on National and Community Service. President Bill Clinton ramped things up well beyond Bush's vision by establishing AmeriCorps in 1993 and the Corporation for National and Community Service. President Obama has further bolstered this area with his United We Serve initiative and new funding. The CNCS now oversees several major service programs, including AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and the Social Innovation Fund, which gives out government grants to support new ways to mobilize volunteers and civil society. 

Meanwhile, plenty of civil society institutions have moved on their own to promote volunteerism and community service -- particularly universities and schools. While it's tempting to pooh-pooh the service of young people as little more than resume building, that's a narrow and cynical perspective. Service learning was promoted by John Dewey and other progressive education thinkers a century ago and now has grown to a stunning level. Service work by college students, for instance, has exploded in the past decade as more and more colleges have added community service requirements. 

Nationally, the volunteer time of all Americans really adds up. According a CNCS study about volunteering in 2011:

Overall, 64.3 million Americans (more than one in four adults) volunteered through a formal organization last year, an increase of 1.5 million from 2010. The 7.9 billion hours these individuals volunteered is valued at $171 billion. Among citizens who volunteered through an organization, the top activities included fundraising or selling items to raise money (26.2%); collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food (23.6%); engaging in general labor or transportation (20.3%); or tutoring or teaching (18.2%).

Mind you, these figures don't include all the time spent by paid employees of nonprofit institutions that are supported by charitable giving. Americans give over $300 billion a year to charity -- in addition to $171 billion in volunteer time they put in. 

Now, these numbers seem less impressive when you consider that the federal government will spend $500 billion on Medicare alone this year -- spending which underscores the unparalleled ability of government to mobilize and deploy national resources on behalf of the common good. 

But, as I said, we don't have to choose between government and civil society. They both matter.