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September 25, 2008

the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act

[Note: a revised and improved version of this post was published in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly: PDF]

The Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act of 2008” (S.3487) would dramatically expand federal support for civilian service programs. Both major presidential candidates took time out on Sept. 11 to endorse the bill in New York City. As Senators, they are also co-sponsors. Given their support and the leadership of Senators Hatch (R) and Kennedy (D), I'd say the bill has pretty good odds. Here is a "bill tracker" that will automatically show its latest progress:

The objective of the bill is to get 250,000 Americans (of all ages) involved in federally supported "service" every year. "Service" could mean a lot of things. It could mean paramilitary work, with people in uniforms patrolling our borders or building defense installations. It could mean individual acts of charity, such as helping elderly people to cross the street. It could mean controversial and aggressive political activism.

In practice, the term "service" in federal-policy talk really means a heterogeneous but finite list of programs. Some, like the Peace Corps, are directly run by the government. These programs can provide full-time jobs with serious responsibilities and high standards. In 2002, for example, there were 215,000 requests for applications for the Peace Corps, yet the Corps had just 7,500 open slots and picked extremely well qualified experts (many of them with years of experience). In contrast, Youth Build is a private, nonprofit corporation that is partly funded by the US government. It enrolls poor people between the ages of 16 and 24, most of whom have been homeless, in foster care, or in prison or probation. Only 11 percent have high school diplomas. Participants learn building skills and receive a dose of civic education. To name a third example, Learn & Serve America is a federal program that funds schools and colleges and state education agencies to help them provide "service-learning"--academic teaching enriched by service experiences. No one is enrolled in Learn & Serve America, but many thousands of students are somewhat affected by it.

For a philosopher who wants to discuss whether "service" is a good thing, the heterogeneity of these programs poses a challenge. It's impossible to define them by naming necessary and sufficient conditions. They do not even share the same objectives. The Peace Corps seeks to promote development overseas in the interests of US foreign policy. YouthBuild tries to enhance the job prospects of its participants. Learn & Serve America is focused on academic skills.

Nevertheless, "service" constitutes a real community of practice, with many overlapping networks of alumni and leaders, similar funding sources, frequent meetings and conferences, a common genealogy dating back to the Roosevelt Administration, and a shared political agenda--currently focused on the passage of Kennedy-Hatch. This should not be surprising. Regardless of their original, official purposes, institutions and professional communities typically evolve and develop into heterogeneous collections of programs. We ought to be able to say whether supporting such "fields of practice" is good public policy. (Of course, we can also propose to shift such fields by preferring some of their elements over others.)

On balance, I think the field of "service" merits more federal support today. Despite the diversity of programs that would be supported, "service" generally advances several important goals.

First, it treats people of all ages as potential public assets, as contributors to the common good. This is philosophically appealing to me because it reflects a basic principle (which we could call Kantian) of respecting other people's moral agency. It also reflects a psychological theory known as "positive youth development." This theory proposes that young people, especially, are more likely to avoid pitfalls such as crime, unwanted pregnancy, suicide, and academic failure, if they are given opportunities to contribute their talents to the community. Most of our schools and other institutions basically treat them as bundles of problems or risks and seek to evaluate, track, prevent, and punish their failures. Cumulatively, such treatment sends a debilitating message. Opportunities to contribute can provide a powerful antidote.

This theory may seem romantic, but it is empirically testable and has been demonstrated in numerous studies. For example, a randomized experiment showed that it was possible to cut the teen pregnancy rate by offering young women service opportunities.

The bulk of the research has been focused on teenagers and young adults--hence the term "positive youth development." But there is no reason to think that the advantages of service to those who serve stop at age 25 or 30. We know that among elderly people, service correlates with mental health.

This first justification of "service" applies best to programs like YouthBuild that enroll young people at risk and predominantly aim to enhance the participants' welfare. An evaluation of YouthBuild for the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the program generated relatively few new housing units, even though participants spent their time building homes. But 29% of participants who entered without having graduated from high school obtained diplomas while they served, and 12% pursued higher education afterwards. Although there was no control group to provide a comparison, this appears to be evidence of substantial positive impact on the participants (PDF).

For the highly selective programs like Peace Corps and VISTA, different educational outcomes are appropriate. The Peace Corps, for example, takes partial credit for the achievements of its alumni, who range from the distinguished sculptor Martin Puryear (whose work shows evidence of his service in Sierra Leone) to Senator Chris Dodd.

Of course, the Peace Corps is not mainly an educational program. It is mainly a tool of international development--and public relations for the United States. Its most important impact is on the communities served, not the people serving. Such impacts vary enormously from program to program. It therefore makes little sense to promote "service" (in general) as an efficient or reliable means to deliver benefits to service-recipients.

But I would argue that "service" as a category holds some promise for improving the relationship between citizens and the government. It hardly needs saying that this relationship is bad. In 1964, three quarters of Americans said that the government in Washington did the right thing just about always or most of the time. By the late 1990s, only about one in four had that level of confidence. Many reasons have been proposed for the decline in trust, and probably many are true. Watergate and Vietnam, the new news media, and Republican ideological critiques no doubt all played their parts. But I'm convinced that part of the problem is a kind of identity gap between citizens and employees of the government.

Elinor Ostrom has shown that in the mid-twentieth century, a substantial proportion of American households had members who served on elected public bodies, such as school boards, at one time in their lives. Consolidation of governments and heavy use of professional managers has reduced such participation to a trivial level. Americans were also more involved with schools thirty years ago than they are today. Again, there are many explanations for the decline, but surely one reason is the growing monopoly of schooling and education by credentialed, professional experts: teachers, administrators, and writers of tests and textbooks. When standardized tests drive teaching and learning, there is less for parents and other citizens to do. Today, some Americans are in "public service," and the rest are not. (Meanwhile, the all-volunteer military, for better and for worse, sharply separates civilians from professional warriors in a way that was not true under the draft.)

I believe we need to weaken this distinction--to have people move in and out of government so that each side learns more about the other. One powerful tool is national and community "service," which means temporary but full-time work funded by the government but often organized by private contractors.

What happens if more people move in and out of government is up to them. They may decide that bureaucracies are better than they appear in popular culture and politicians' speeches and favor more funding and responsibilities for the state. But they may decide that there are superior alternatives to state agencies. The charter school movement is heavily populated by alumni of Teach for America, a service program that places its volunteers in difficult public schools. Many (although not all) decide that quite radical reform is essential. Traditional liberals, libertarian-leaning conservatives, good-government reformers, and others will have different hopes about what a stint on the public payroll may teach. In my view, we should learn from young people who have that experience.

Having mentioned some advantages of service, I would like to note some drawbacks. Federally funded "service" is only a temporary opportunity available to a minority of Americans. It has official limitations; for instance, AmeriCorps forbids political activity. And the quality of service opportunities varies immensely. Peace Corps volunteers may be involved in complex problem-solving in exotic locales, but some service programs just put kids on a bus to clean up the local park.

For these reasons, we must make sure that the service agenda does not swallow up a broader agenda for citizen engagement. In the recent National Conference on Citizenship survey that we helped to write and analyze, 69% of people strongly supported the ideas embodied in the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act; another 18% supported it (not strongly); and only 9% opposed it. But we know, from asking people what the word "service" connotes for them, that it implies episodic charitable or "helping" behavior. In the same survey, we asked Americans whether they favored “changing the law so that local citizens must take the lead in setting standards and choosing tests for students in their local schools.” Fifty percent favored increasing local citizen control (34% strongly); but 36.5% opposed this idea (21.5% strongly). In general, people with more education were less supportive, perhaps reflecting their comfort with expert-designed tests and curricula. People at least 25 years old who had never attended college were very supportive (60% in favor, 40% strongly), whereas respondents with graduate educations were strongly opposed.

In short, "service" is the politically easy part of restoring active citizenship in America. It holds promise, but it also faces limits. I support S. 3487 as a piece of the reform agenda, but I worry that it will come to represent success.

September 25, 2008 3:55 PM | category: none


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