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July 4, 2008

defending national and community service

Senator Obama's national service plan got lots of attention when he re-announced it this week, in contrast to the original announcement in February, which got no press coverage at all. I guess a proposal is more interesting if a nominee offers it than if it comes from one Democratic candidate among many--although I was surprised by the complete lack of interest in Obama's $3.5 billion plan when he introduced it last winter. The current version is very popular in my circles and has drawn interesting endorsements. (For instance, my friend John Bridgeland, formerly a senior adviser to George Bush, supports it.) But the influential liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias calls the "underlying idea ... bad and illiberal." He provides an amusing video parody of national service as a kind of softcore fascism, and gives the Obama plan a pass only because it is so "vague" as to be "harmless."

National and community service plans have a great progressive heritage (from the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal to the Lyndon Johnson's Job Corps and VISTA), but they do require a justification. Sometimes, when I am deep into a strategy meeting in which everyone assumes that we need to increase the numbers of paid federal volunteers, I start to wonder whether this is the right goal, after all. So I welcome Yglesias' challenge--but I believe it can be met.

Paid community service opportunities are good for those who serve. The evidence is quite strong. As a dramatic example, on entering Youth Build (a federally funded program) the new volunteers estimate their own life expectancies at something like 40 years. By the time they leave the program, they expect to live three decades longer. Having an opportunity to do something constructive is a powerful way to build skills and to enhance confidence and self-worth. For the much more academically successful citizens who enroll in competitive programs like the Peace Corps, the benefits are also powerful, but different. They learn about social problems and about working with people who are different from themselves.

It is also important that the people who are served benefit; otherwise, a service program is artificial. (No one will develop confidence and skills from "serving" if the service itself is pointless.) There have been evaluations that find strongly positive impacts on communities. But I disagree with Yglesias that "the relevant test should be effectiveness of outcomes (does TFA help kids learn, does the PeaceCorps help build the American brand)." That is an important but secondary consideration.

The national and community service programs also help to break down the wall between government and the public, or between officials and citizens, by enrolling thousands of citizens in temporary public service jobs. I think this is essential for progressivism. Citizens' intense distrust for government reduces public support for national health care, environmental protection, and education. If citizens have some experience working on public issues in collaboration with the government, their opinions will be better informed and will probably be more favorable. (And if direct experience with the government makes them less supportive, then we obviously need to reform the state before we can expand it.)

Finally, the national and community service programs are important for Obama, because the core of his message is empowerment--we can make a difference working together. He needs to explain how we can make a difference after the election. Helping to elect him cannot be our only way to participate. Community service programs symbolize his commitment to public participation--and also underline the best parts of his own biography. For instance, Barack was a founding board member of Public Allies, an Americorps program, and Michelle directed its Chicago office.

For all these reasons, progressives should be excited about the Obama service plan and should see it as fairly central to his campaign. I am afraid that their skepticism reveals a basic lack of sympathy with Obama and the people who surround him.

July 4, 2008 9:19 AM | category: none


from Harry Boyte, by email:

I like your blog post on Obama's service, but the problem remains -- generally in the world and in the campaign -- that "service" has complex and contradictory associations in a highly professionalized world. I re-read my comment you posted on Lakoff from 2004. It seems if anything more to the point (especially since Lakoff has a new book out), since the struggle is for the campaign to develop the implications of "organizing" and "empowerment" as a different paradigm for governance. If it fails to do that, the critique of Frank Rich Sunday holds -- it can sound very tame and timid in the face of the huge challenges of the world.

[The key passage from Boyte on Lakoff:]

"Service" means one thing in the context of close-knit, personal relations in communities. In large bureaucracies with thin transactions between experts and clients or customers, it has an entirely different set of resonances. It sounds to many like disingenuous self-justification. ...

The ideology of service means "the able" taking care of "the needy." But citizens are not children and many resent being conceived as full of deficiencies. The paternalism of service politics goes counter to the ideal of a free, self-reliant citizenry that uses government as its instrument but is not awed by government as its savior - an ideal that has been the wellspring of America's democratic tradition.

July 8, 2008 11:41 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Peter Levine

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