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.

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