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Serving America

A new law triples the size of government "volunteerism" and perhaps the restrictions that go with it

Serving America

(Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune/NewsCom)

Taking a recent break from repairs on a Hurricane Katrina-damaged home, AmeriCorps member Sarah Gasparetti said the Louisiana project has taught her one thing: "Mold removal is not a glamorous job."

Gasparetti, 24, spent the week climbing up into the home's rafters to brush off the mold, douse the area in chemicals, and repaint the walls.

Soon there will be more volunteers like Gasparetti. A lot more. With a new $5.7 billion national service law, AmeriCorps will be tripled from 75,000 positions to 225,000 during the next eight years. The largest expansion of full-time, government-subsidized public service since President Kennedy created the Peace Corps, President Barack Obama said it would "usher in a new era of service in America."

But some conservatives worry that this super-sized federal bureaucracy proves that the new Washington believes public volunteerism cannot survive without federal help. They agree that the act will change the volunteer world-but warn it could do more harm than good.

The Serve America Act had a rapid ride through Congress, passing the House nine days after its introduction in March and, a week later, clearing the Senate in a 79 to 19 vote. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., called making the volunteer world more like government a "huge, well-intentioned mistake. Our history shows us that when government gets involved, it tends to take something that is working and make it not work nearly as well."

He also insisted that the current economic crisis is not the time to shell out billions of dollars for government expansion, adding that its 250,000 paid employees would make AmeriCorps the nation's 14th-largest company: "We need to come to a point as a government that we recognize we cannot do everything."

The increased volunteer pool could give vast power for the federal government to place added restrictions on nonprofits. Organizations desperate for helpers may be tempted to make compromises in mission or belief statements in order to be eligible for this new volunteer army. Equally troublesome: Nonprofits that resist any federal restrictions could be handicapped by an exodus of volunteers flocking to places where they would be paid by the government. AmeriCorps members get living expenses, while the law boosts to $5,350 the college scholarship money each member gets.

This, argued Brian Brown with The Heritage Foundation, would make the federal government the de facto head of the nonprofit world. "Serve America means quite literally serve the government. This opens up the door for training a whole generation of Americans into thinking that serving others has to happen only through a government program." Some of these new volunteers, said Brown, may wind up taking positions at organizations that stage political protests, work on campaigns or foster abortion procedures--in effect, being paid with taxpayer dollars while doing so.

During congressional debate on the bill, lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to insert an amendment that would have blocked these funds from going to organizations that do political fundraising and lobbying. But Whitney Soenksen, an AmeriCorps alum, called "ridiculous" concerns about the future of volunteering in the face of this expansion.

Soenksen, who worked with a youth program in Boston during her AmeriCorps experience, said she was not indoctrinated by any political ideology but spent her years in the program "running around with children." Rather than spending their service years at high-powered political machines, Soenksen said members work at nonprofits and community organizations that are too strapped for cash to have paid staff. Political activism is strictly forbidden, with violators facing expulsion from AmeriCorps.

Back in Louisiana surrounded by the house mold, a government takeover of the volunteer world seems far from Gasparetti's mind too: "It has definitely changed my outlook. I know I want to get more involved in helping people who really need it the most."

Serving others the way Gasparetti has done is commendable, but guarding against abuse of the federal government's new role in the volunteer world is key.

Edward Lee Pitts

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the associate dean of World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. Lee resides with his family in Iowa.