Mandatory public service

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: encouraging public service.

Americans’ voluntarism was one of the things that so impressed the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville back in the 19th century. It was one of the things, he said, that made them exceptional.

NICK EICHER, HOST: De Tocqueville had seen volunteer organizations building hospitals and schools and helping the poor. And today, nonprofits and community organizations still lean heavily on volunteers.

Problem is, there are fewer of them: In a little more than a decade, 6 million fewer Americans volunteered.

So in 2016 the federal government created the first-ever commission to think about the best ways to encourage service. Last month, it revealed its interim report to Congress.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has the story.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Joe Heck is the chairman of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service. Speaking in Washington DC, Heck said the commission’s goal is to reignite a a spirit of service in the U.S.

HECK: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others? America is a nation built on service.

Heck said while Americans volunteer far more compared to the global 10 percent average, more citizens could be sharing the burden.

HECK: In a country of more than 329 million people, the extraordinary potential for service is largely untapped.

Rebecca Burgess manages the program on American citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute. She says with fewer people shouldering volunteer hours, many organizations are feeling the shortage of help.

BURGESS: This isn’t just your Little League baseball. This is also the Elks, the Rotary Club, church-based organizations that go out and do volunteer work in communities. Basically the whole gamut of those private associations.

Why have more Americans fallen away from volunteering? Burgess says one reason is as government welfare programs grow, people don’t feel responsible to care for the less fortunate.  

BURGESS: We have more safety nets economically for the disadvantaged and for the elderly that they don’t necessarily need to step up and take care of the members of their community.

Another factor is social media. Many people—especially young people—think they don’t have to leave their homes to be involved.

BURGESS: It takes away the need to actually do something to create community. It doesn’t take much effort to sit in a chat room or to click like on photos.

There’s one other factor. Americans have become less involved in religious communities.

BURGESS: There is a connection between decreasing rates of people attending churches and volunteer rates.

As Americans fall away from a service oriented lifestyle, this has consequences for the government. Some 30 percent of federal civil servants will be eligible for retirement in the next five years but many young adults are avoiding government jobs in favor of higher earning private sector jobs.

So the federal commission is exploring how to inspire more people to get involved in public service.

One possible answer? The committee has floated the idea of making public service mandatory. AEI’s Rebecca Burgess says requiring people to perform public service would actually backfire on the government.

BURGESS: Service, when it becomes mandatory, has deleterious effects on how the individuals are viewed and view government. I think that it’s when government gets out of the way that people are much more willing and incentivized and happier about doing service, because it’s about something that’s not politics. It’s about who they are as individuals and earning that kind of aspect of themselves.

The committee is also exploring ways to incentivize public service. The panel is considering creating a Public Service Corps program, similar to the Peace Corp or the Reserve Officers’ Training Corp. This new program would offer scholarships and special training to college students in exchange for future civil service.

Burgess says a better long-term solution is to reinvigorate civic education in school.

BURGESS: If people don’t understand the types of systems in society we have through that education, why would they want to help further it or strengthen it or share in it?

The committee’s report agrees suggesting starting civic education as soon as kindergarten. The interim report also proposes adopting national standards for civic knowledge and giving schools access to the same resources used by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Finally, there are 48 million Americans over the age of 65. National Commission chairman Joe Heck and Rebecca Burgess agree that using this aging demographic both for public and volunteer service is essential.

BURGESS: Go to your elder home or retirement communities and show them that they have a valued place in the community.

The committee’s final report isn’t due until 2020. Throughout this year, it will hold public hearings on ways to meet America’s service needs. The first is this month in Washington, D.C.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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