The Need to Preserve National Service
By Linda Stamato
President John F. Kennedy implored Americans to embrace civic action and public service, as most of us know, when he asked his fellow citizens to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”.
With bipartisan support, he provided the means: The Peace Corps for Americans to serve abroad and VISTA for Americans to serve at home. As we start a year of celebrating Kennedy’s legacy, it’s fitting to reflect on his call to Americans to serve their nation. And, as we do, we have to keep that commitment in the years ahead, confirm the value of national service and acknowledge the proper role for government to support and sustain it.
Kennedy’s initiatives expanded the Federal government’s support for service that began during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. With such New Deal programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps, FDR used the Federal government to fund programs to help the country recover from the Great Depression. He was using government to help the nation’s people help one another.
Since then, every president, regardless of party affiliation or political persuasion, followed FDR’s lead. Lyndon Johnson brought VISTA to life; Richard Nixon created the Senior Corps; William Clinton is responsible for AmeriCorps; and George Bush expanded the nation’s investment in the Peace Corps and other service programs, as did Barack Obama.
And Donald Trump? Judging by his budget proposal, he stands far apart from this tradition: There is no commitment to continue Federal support for national service; indeed, there is a decided determination to end it. He proposes to reduce the budget for the Peace Corps and to jettison VISTA, along with AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and other programs that are part of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the umbrella for national service programs.
And not to save a whole lot of money either. As The Detroit Free Press reported: “...AmeriCorps, with its 80,000 members and its nationwide presence, must be a huge drain on the budget, right? Nope. At $1.1 billion dollars, the entire budget for CNCS, which includes AmeriCorps and many other programs, is just .000275 per cent of the entire federal budget.”
Trump’s budget is anything but a “New Foundation for Greatness”, as it is dubbed. Its recipe turns us away from common purpose, promotes self-regard and, indeed, cruelly disregards the needs of those who are not the privileged wealthy. Trump poisons the nation against its own and tries to turn us inward. His government slashes, dismantles and diminishes its role, seeking to erase its presence on the civic landscape.
Said William A. Glastonbury, domestic policy advisor to Bill Clinton: “The people who put together the president’s budget know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.”
Service, however, has been an important and consistent commitment in America, embraced by local and state governments, producing a vast array of service-oriented not-for-profits, and occupying a significant place in the mission of schools and colleges.
Given this history and the strong bipartisan support that national service has received in Congress, the president’s proposals may be cut off at the pass. Still, his preferences—his intentions and vision for our nation—are abundantly clear.
Consider the contrast with John Kennedy’s brother, Robert, who said that “the purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better”. Fortunately, a lot of people joined the Peace Corps and Vista to do just that.
Take this one example. Tommy Johnson, a Morristown, N.J., resident, was one of the earliest recruits to the Peace Corp. A volunteer in service to the poorest people in Africa, Tommy served in the corps and discovered his purpose in life: aiding those in desperate need of surgery in the nation to which he was assigned, Sierra Leone. This is what he still does today. His efforts, through the not-for-profit group he created, Africa Surgery, Inc, provides healing, health and hope to patients in dire need.
Now, as the Peace Corps approaches 60, consider that several hundred thousand volunteers have served in well over 140 host countries to work on such issues as public health, education, information technology, water quality, housing and environmental preservation. Seven thousand are currently in training. Tommy Johnson and the many others like him—whose early lives in the Peace Corps had lasting effects and who continue on the front lines helping others—create and sustain a certain faith in America. Their efforts to advance world peace and friendship continue to provide sources of hope and, for the givers and receivers both, immense satisfaction.
Closer to home, VISTA volunteers contribute their skills and talents to change the lives of people in communities across the country. Thousands of individuals annually make this commitment to tutor and mentor young people, build affordable housing, assist veterans and military families, provide health services, run after-school programs, help communities respond to disasters and build the capacity of nonprofit organizations. With more than 45 million Americans living in poverty in America, the value of their work can’t be overestimated.
Since 1994, more than 1 million Americans have given 1.3 billion hours of service through AmeriCorps. Some of their stories are at this link.
In communities across New Jersey, Ameri-Corps/VISTA volunteers are active meeting these and other pressing needs. Some members serve full time to fight hunger and illiteracy, improve health services and increase housing opportunities. These young men and women, 18 to 24, commit to a 10-month, full-time residential program for this purpose, establishing an early connection to service and its critical importance to them and to the people they serve.
Since New Jersey has its own CNCS (under the auspices of the Department of State) to guide and oversee national service programs in the state, it’s unclear what will become of it and the programs it supports if Federal funding is decimated.
National service has had an impact far beyond its original conception, extending beyond individuals and specific programs to generate partnerships with corporations and not-for-profits to maximize impact. The CNCS is not simply helping people, at home and abroad, but contributing to a better world, building the capacity of local organizations to use the time and talents, and the idealism and creativity, of citizen volunteers. At the same time, it is adding value and purpose to their lives.
The nation that Trump wants us to see at home and to show the world is one we have to resist. The willingness to serve is a commitment Americans want to make. And, it’s an appropriate, indeed, a critical role for government to enable and support that.
Linda Stamato, a former consultant to the Ford Foundation, is co-director, with Sanford Jaffe, a former program officer at Ford, of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. This is a lightly edited version of an article that appeared originally in The Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger on June 11.