April 23, 2010 ; Center for American Progress | The Center for American Progress, a politically left-leaning policy think tank, has been a big promoter of some of the Obama Administration’s community service priorities, including the expansion of AmeriCorps and other programs at the Corporation for National and Community Service. As part of the nation’s celebration of the one-year anniversary of the Serve America Act, CAP held a program keyed to Visiting CAP Fellow Shirley Sagawa’s new book, The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers Are Transforming America. There is much to be said for volunteerism, but some of this report on the discussion feels a bit overblown.

CAP CEO (and former top aide to President Bill Clinton) John Podesta cited the success of the Peace Corps, Meals on Wheels, AmeriCorps, and Girl Scouts as evidence that the U.S. is “truly a service nation.” That was perhaps the first line that felt like a litany of notions of American exceptionalism. Sagawa embellished on the exceptionalism theme, saying it is “uniquely American to roll up your sleeves and get things done.” Sagawa lauded “volunteer” programs such as Teach for America and City Year that “turn good will into outcomes.” Those are stipended volunteers, and that is an exceptionally American concept, but the paid TFA teachers aren’t quite volunteers for their stints in inner city and rural schools. The panelists apparently noted that low-income people do not take many volunteer positions because “they cannot afford to work for free for an extended period of time,” making the majority of volunteers “middle-class adults from suburbs.” It was important, they contended, to “make volunteering more acceissbile to people in low-income areas.” 

That struck us as missing the almost constant mutual aid that occurs in low-income communities that doesn’t get classified as “volunteering” (just like the constant flow of charitable donations as remittances that don’t get counted as charitable giving in minority neighborhoods). Moreover, it would be so much better to see low-income people’s employment and income prospects raised so that they don’t have to fear the trade-off between time spent volunteering and time spent earning an income. Sagawa says that 70 percent of nonprofits are completely volunteer-run. That statistic is amazing, but the nation has to ensure that it doesn’t confuse the value that unpaid (or low-paid stipended) volunteers bring with the necessity of creating good career paths with livable salaries in the nonprofit sector.—Rick Cohen

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