Obama Must Walk the Talk on National Service

Michelle Obama urged millions of Americans this week to perform community service on January 19. Her e-mail message included a link to engage in such actions, and her commitment is clearly heart-felt. Ms. Obama once worked for Public Allies, which “identifies talented young adults from diverse backgrounds and prepares them for careers working for community and social change.” Allies serve 10-month, paid apprenticeships at local nonprofits, and, according to the group’s website, “participate in a rigorous and rewarding leadership development program with a diverse group of peers who are also of and working within their home community.”

But it appears that President-elect Obama will not be boosting funds for community service as part of his economic stimulus program. This means that young people will not have greater opportunity to obtain the type of paid apprenticeships offered by Public Allies and other groups. An historic opportunity could well be missed, and Obama’s commitment to public service could start to appear a lot like George H. W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light.

Since Barack Obama pledged during his campaign to expand funding for Americorps and other national service programs, many assumed that the economic stimulus package would create an immediate opportunity to fulfill this pledge. National service jobs can begin almost immediately, they exist in all fifty states, and, if not agency funding match is required, would help rebuild communities suffering in these tough economic times.

But according to a great article by Stephen Waldman in the Huffington Post, the stimulus package is not likely to include funding for a major boost in national service. This conclusion is confirmed by my review of the Obama Administration’s January 9 14-page analysis of the job impact of the stimulus plan authored by Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein.

The Obama team has also heavily stressed that 90% of the jobs created by the stimulus package will be in the private sector. National service is the public sector.

Is the Obama team afraid that a major boost in national service in the stimulus package will facilitate conservative attacks on the overall plan? If so, this fear is unwarranted, as the national mood has never been more pro-community service and Republicans will look selfish by attacking it.


I wrote on December 9, 2008 that the Obama stimulus plan should go beyond bricks and mortar to create jobs for teachers, artists, and service workers. Unless Obama’s team is doing a great job camouflaging their intent — and they certainly have skills to do so — it looks like bricks, mortar and tax cuts will dominate the package.

That’s unfortunate, as increasing national service and funding for cultural workers as part of the annual budget process will be difficult.

randy-shaw.gifVolunteerism is no substitute for paid-staff. In fact, volunteers need supervision and training, and one day national service calls — unlike well organized local programs like Rebuilding Together — do little to solve community problems.

Progressives criticized George H. W. Bush for highlighting his “Thousand Points of Light” volunteer program while refusing to boost funding for paid jobs addressing community needs. Absent a boost in dollars, the Obama Administration will be opening itself up to similar charges.

Randy Shaw
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the newly-released Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)
Republished with permission from BeyondChron where it first appeared.
About Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Director of San Francisco's Tenderloin Housing Clinic and the Editor-in-Chief of the online daily newspaper "Beyond Chron." He is the author of three books, "Beyond the Fields", "The Activist's Handbook", and "Reclaiming America".

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