Quantcast
Connect with us

Buttigieg’s call for universal public service would mark a big departure from historically small volunteer programs

Published

on

- Commentary

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg recently proposed massively expanding national service programs.

The South Bend, Indiana, mayor told MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow he thinks it should be “not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they’re 18 spends a year in national service.”

Buttigieg’s concept draws on the benefits he feels he derived from his own military experience. He believes that giving more young Americans a chance to serve their country in roles like teaching at-risk children and building homes for those in need might help bridge some of the nation’s political, economic and cultural divides.

ADVERTISEMENT

I research the history of U.S. volunteer service programs , including the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. The evidence that these programs help volunteers is stronger than proof that they make a significant difference for the communities served. To me, it’s clear that by mobilizing millions of young people rather than thousands, Buttigieg’s plan would exacerbate this problem.

Pacifist roots

The American philosopher William James planted the intellectual seeds for national service programs in 1910. In an essay demanding a “moral equivalent to war,” he argued for a new kind of national non-military service for young men.

This concept first appealed to pacifists. Beginning in the 1930s, the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, organized “work camps,” which had high school and college-aged students assist low-income U.S. communities as unpaid volunteers.

On top of creating new infrastructure, like building community centers, or working in hospitals, the early camps were also designed to be an educational experience. Participants tended to be from privileged backgrounds and eager to become more aware of social issues such as poverty and race relations.

After World War II, various denominations began to organize work camp and relief projects in France, Japan, Egypt and other countries. They did everything from rebuild homes for displaced persons to teach farming techniques to help rebuild war-ravaged areas and improve prospects for peace.

ADVERTISEMENT

Representative Henry Reuss of Wisconsin, a Democrat, encountered an inter-denominational team from the International Voluntary Service building schools on a trip to Cambodia 1957. He proposed a government-sponsored program that would serve the same purpose in 1959.

Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat, picked up on that idea when the advocated for the formation of what he called a “Peace Corps” during his failed bid for his party’s presidential nomination in 1960.

Peace Corps and VISTA

John F. Kennedy first embraced the idea as well in an impromptu speech – at 2 a.m. – he made on October 14, 1960, on the cusp of the presidential election that brought him to the White House. He established the Peace Corps by executive order in March 1961.

ADVERTISEMENT

Americans immediately embraced it. A January 1961 Gallup Poll showed that 71% of Americans supported the idea and thousands of students declared their readiness to participate.

The Peace Corps was meant to aid developing countries by teaching English, improving farming practices and providing other hands-on training. Within two years it had dispatched 7,000 volunteers to 44 developing countries. By 1966 it reached its peak participation of 15,000 volunteers.

ADVERTISEMENT

“In the American mind, it took its place somewhere between the Boy Scouts and motherhood,” said the late Harris Wofford, who helped create the Peace Corps and later ran the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that runs several national service programs.

The initial popularity of the Peace Corps led the Kennedy administration to explore creating a domestic counterpart to aid “the entire needy segment of our population.” An early concept paper described how its “exemplary” volunteer “corpsmen” would inspire local communities to do a better job of helping themselves.

After JFK’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson realized this aim by establishing Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, in 1964. It soon stationed about 3,500 volunteers on the front lines of LBJ’s War on Poverty in places ranging from rural West Virginia to urban Houston and Detroit.

ADVERTISEMENT

AmeriCorps, explained – including how to pronounce its name.

Less enthusiasm

Before long, enthusiasm for both programs waned, dashing hopes some Americans harbored for a national program on a grander scale.

One initial purpose of the Peace Corps was increasing U.S. popularity and influence at the height of the Cold War as a diplomatic tool. The program became less popular among college graduates due in part to widespread concerns over U.S. foreign policy, especially the Vietnam War. Even some of the volunteers themselves joined the criticism.

VISTA volunteers had their own predicaments. Whether working in rural Appalachia or urban neighborhoods, they often found themselves embroiled in conflicts with local politicians due to their roles as community organizers in areas riddled with political and economic injustices.

As a result, the two flagship national service programs lost funding and support during the Nixon administration. But both kept going, attracting enough ambitious volunteers destined for leadership in politics and business later in their careers to remain prestigious. Both welcome older volunteers, as well as young people.

ADVERTISEMENT

By late 2017, 7,376 Peace Corps volunteers were serving in 65 nations while 75,000 Americans volunteered at least part-time through AmeriCorps.

The Trump administration has sought to trim Peace Corps spending and stop funding AmeriCorps – which replaced VISTA and includes funding for the Teach for America program that puts young college graduates in low-income classrooms.

Congress has so far rebuffed those requests, leaving roughly US$400 million budgets for both programs intact.

Dreaming on

Aspirations to expand national service programs have cropped up before. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all expressed that goal.

ADVERTISEMENT

Liberals, in particular, have periodically cast it as more than just a practical way to fight poverty. Like the Quakers who organized work camps for decades and still encourage youth community service, they see advantages for society – such as less bigotry and more compassion for the poor – when affluent and highly educated volunteers connect with lower-income Americans, often across class and racial lines.

Buttigieg, in his call for civilian national service cited the same rationale: that it would aid “social cohesion.” John Delaney, a former Congressman from Maryland, also favors a robust national service program. Now running a low-profile bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Delaney says more universal service would “restore a sense of common purpose.”

Volunteers, including those who take part in Teach for America do get more familiar with the problems faced by the communities they assist. They also benefit personally excel at attaining their career goals.

But how effective are these programs at making things better for the people they serve?

The evidence is far less compelling. A large body of literature, for instance, shows that the impact of Teach for America on struggling schools is marginal at best.

ADVERTISEMENT

That is partly why Teach for America is encountering growing resistance from groups ranging from parents, to politicians and teacher unions. A bill pending in the California legislature would ban its teachers from its public schools.

There are, likewise, few if any objective assessments attesting to the Peace Corps’ impact. Bolivia, Russia and dozens of other countries have opted out.

Buttigieg’s call for a national service program would require a scale beyond than anything seen before. Should the federal government ever seek to realize his grand ambition, it ought to first answer some long-deferred tough questions about the real purposes and benefits of this kind of volunteering.The Conversation

By Christopher Staysniak, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, College of the Holy Cross

ADVERTISEMENT

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

2020 Election

Joe Biden was right about black people and Trump — and the left needs to get past purity tests

Published

on

My uncle, whom I'll call Roger, is a white man. He "dated" my older cousin-aunt for 40 years, although they never got married. Roger was also a musician who played bass in my father's band. Roger and my cousin-aunt were very much in love and had several children. As such, Uncle Roger was always at family gatherings and other events. Inevitably, he would have too much to drink (and smoke) and get into a loud argument with someone about politics, sports, music, books or some other topic … and then he would say something impolitic about black folks. Everyone would look at him, shake their heads, roll their eyes and then laugh. On cue, everyone would say, "That's Uncle Roger! He's just getting too familiar again!"

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

How Rudy Giuliani went from ‘America’s mayor’ to self-serving Trump sycophant

Published

on

After the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Republican Rudy Giuliani was widely praised for the leadership he showed as New York City’s mayor during one of the darkest times in the city’s history. But these days, many of the people who were praising Giuliani as a take-charge leader after 9/11 have become blistering critics — for example, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. And journalist Seth Hettena, in Rolling Stone, takes an in-depth look at Giuliani’s journey from “America’s mayor” to self-serving Trump sycophant.

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Tolerance and violence: The fate of religious minorities during the plague under Christianity and Islam

Published

on

Pandemics are nothing new—they scythed through the ancient world as they did the pre-modern and, as we know to our grief and confusion, they are still mowing us down today.

We might think that human nature is fairly invariant across time and space, and expect the response to these catastrophes to be perennially the same. Certainly, in the 21st century there are disturbing echoes of the way Jews were blamed by European Christians of the 14th century for the Black Death. From the US to the UK, from Iran to Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world), there has recently been an escalation of abuse and violence against Chinese and Asian-looking people. And not just Asians. Political groups and politicians have latched on to coronavirus as a weapon in their anti-immigration policies, urging their partisans to hunker down and suspect the alien minority. In a bid for votes President Trump seems to be using coronavirus to whip up anti-Chinese feeling. In India, egged on by the BJP, the ruling Hindu nationalist party, Muslims have been viciously attacked and accused of conspiring to kill Hindus by deliberately spreading the disease.

Continue Reading
 
 
You need honest news coverage. Help us deliver it. Join Raw Story Investigates for $1. Go ad-free.
close-image