Marketplace: Who’s Benefiting From National Service?

A few weeks ago, 30 congressmen published a letter protesting budget cuts to programs like AmeriCorps.
My latest commentary on public radio’s Marketplace aired yesterday and it’s about who benefits from national service programs.

You can listen to my commentary here or read the text, written for radio, below. 350 words is not enough to fully explore this interesting topic, so this is meant just to start a conversation, not finish it.

Thanks to Arnold Kling and David Boaz for offering feedback on an early draft.

Listen carefully to those who hail the benefits of national service programs. "It’ll improve civic engagement, build national unity, instill duty and honor in America’s youth." Isn’t it strange how the conversation is always about the benefits to us?

A few years ago, a Washington University report noted that nobody has really studied how broad service programs affect those actually being served. It suggests that in some cases the local communities in which we are volunteering may be hurt more than helped. How so?

Say an Uncle Sam-sponsored American comes along and offers to rebuild a dilapidated home in a poor area for free. What rational homeowner would say no? The community’s happy, and the subsidized volunteer feels good about himself, but what about the local builder who was charging market rate for the service? Sorry, he’s out of a job. Temporary streams of volunteers can disrupt local labor markets over the long haul. One study of AmeriCorps, for example, suggests the positive impact may be only short-term.

Now national service is just a sliver of the total volunteer pie. Americans volunteered over three billion hours last year. The vast majority of these people did so without an order from the government. They worked with private non-profits. Since they choose to volunteer for a specific local cause, these people are better able to create a long-term positive impact on the folks they serve.

Nevertheless, John McCain and others want to nationalize volunteerism. There’s an effort underway to pump up the social pressure. Advocates want to offer various financial incentives for kids to serve "voluntarily" for the United States. McCain talks about increased "patriotism" and "serving one’s country." So wait. Is McCain’s plan a nationalistic morale building exercise? Are the benefits intended to flow primarily toward the servers or the served?

Now what’s the point of an expensive government program that doesn’t quite know whom it’s trying to help? Let’s stick with local, community-organized service programs, and make sure those in need come first, and those who offer the services are contributing of their own volition.

7 comments on “Marketplace: Who’s Benefiting From National Service?
  • The dilapidated house rebuilding project isn’t a useful example. The house wouldn’t be fixed by the local contractor because the poor person couldn’t have afforded to hire the contractor in the first place. If a voluntary organization doesn’t come along to help, the house will fall down. When you give an example like that, it reinforces for me that you’ve never lived in poverty and have no idea what it’s like. Lucky you.

  • I gotta agree with Jude on this particular example. I used to live in a very poor neighborhood in Chicago (Pilsen) and the only new houses that got built (frequently on trash-strewn vacant lots that were in property tax arrears) came through volunteerism.

    A house is a capital investment, not a good. Volunteerism in this case is an alternative method for injecting capital into the community.

    Now, if volunteers were coming together to build a deck, which has much lower capital requirements, I might see the point, but do you really want to argue against the modern equivalent of barn-raising?

  • If there is a some need that’s not being met by the market (ie, there’s not a service provider willing to provide the service at an agreed-upon rate), and through democratic means society declares such a problem important, society taxes itself and the government fills the need.

    Sporadic streams of volunteers is not a sustainable solution to a housing problem.

    While I agree in the short term a volunteer team building a home for a homeowner who can’t afford renovation can be a good thing, in the long term, this masks a larger market failure that ought to involve government.

  • Ben,

    Any reason you didn’t mention Obama’s pledge for national service? He and McCain are virtually identical.

    I find it odd that you would criticize McCain, but ignore Obama.

    Any reason for that?

  • I referenced Obama in an earlier draft, but it got cut due to space.

    My sense is that McCain is much more an advocate for this than Obama. McCain has been talking about this his whole political career, and some say privately has expressed an interest in compulsory service but won’t propose it because it wouldn’t be politically feasible.

    Obama, best I can tell, has never had dreams of compulsory service, and doesn’t make this a stump point. (All candidates have a million “proposals” – the question is which do they really put energy behind.)

    Besides, serving one’s country isn’t part of Obama’s life story as it is for McCain.

  • This really only addresses a small bit of national service programs. Peace Crops projects are usually giving benefits that produce long-term results. Education, health, and training programs are the bulk of what they do.

    Affordable housing is just a small part of the AmeriCorps program, too, so this examples overlooks the majority of their work.

    In fact, I think your example may be more likely to be carried out by the local volunteer forces you are citing as a positive. (This is purely speculative.

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