Thursday, March 19, 2009

What is "Service?" New Obama Programs Distort the Concept


I'm spending spare moments pulling out yellowed envelopes of snapshots, seeking more newly-precious glimpses of my father-in-law to scan into my computer to share with our family. From divergent points on the globe, we weep privately and together over the loss of our role model of exuberant joy in life.

It's ironic that we're now made so sad by the loss of one who so vibrantly personified happiness.

It was in this context that I found myself actually irate reading a New York Times piece on Obama's tripling of AmeriCorps, to the tune of $6 billion over five years. Hailed as an altruistic opportunity in the tradition of JFK's 1965 "Vista" (Volunteers in Service to America, which was in imitation of Peace Corps), The Times fairly sings that the expansion "would establish Mr. Obama as the boldest proponent of service programs since Kennedy exhorted Americans to 'ask what you can do for your country.'"

Apparently even 70 Republican congressmen bought the hype--along with 251 Democrats, of course. One hundred four of the GOP voted nay, joined by one courageous Democrat.

But is this really service, or just another government make-work ploy? "Volunteers" get a living allowance, health care "and other benefits" says the Vista website. And after the year of service, there's a bonus of your choice of $4,725 for education (which will jump to $5,350 with the Obama bill) or, currently, $1,200 in cash (not sure what the higher cash reward will be with the additional funding). The stated goal is "to fight poverty," but "VISTA members generally do not provide direct services, such as tutoring children or building homes. Instead, they focus their efforts on building the organizational, administrative, and financial capacity of organizations..."

Vista is one of three existing AmeriCorps programs, the others being AmeriCorps State and National and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. The Obama plan, however, creates several additional government entities taxpayers will be funding, which include "new service programs focused on education, health care and clean energy." If the participants get living allowances, health care, child care and other perks, why is their involvement "service" any more than those employed by those same programs? Is it called "service" if you're paid by the government, and "work" if you're paid by anyone else? Perhaps it's the fact that the length of commitment is only twelve months, whereas employees' prospects are long-term? Tell that to the many people whose "permanent" jobs--surprise!--got axed due to the economic malaise.

I can imagine many folk who were laid off jumping at the chance for a secure income and health insurance for a year.

This all relates to my father-in-law, mourned by a wide circle of family, friends and admirers. He was a brilliant physicist, whose inventions in fiber optics and many other scientific fields helped push our nation into the high-tech age. By creating a company to execute, manufacture and distribute his innovations, he employed hundreds--probably thousands--of people. He toiled day and night, immersing himself in problem-solving and the hands-on development of products that changed the nature of communications internationally.

How is this kind of creativity and entrepreneurial accomplishment any less "service" than the administrative work in non-profit organizations of Vista "volunteers"? The difference was, he put all his own personal financial worth on the line to make it happen. And along the way, he experienced complete loss, only to build it back, undeterred. He took the risks personally, spurred by his enthusiasm for science and the need of his genius for expression. He had no guaranteed living allowance, no taxpayer-funded health care, no education bonus or cash option after a year of his total devotion.

But he, and other entrepreneurs who succeed, are now the bad guys, demonized. If they were able to parlay their efforts and investments into something that actually grew a lot--and they were able to grow into a large company and create tens of thousands or more jobs, well, they're now a "rich corporation" who must pay a far higher percentage of their earnings in order to "spread the wealth." Not that they spread it by hiring more people and investing in new ideas.
The way I see it, real "service" is provided by those who sacrifice and assume risks. That's why those in the military, who not only forego their careers and leave their families to submit to orders, often risking their very lives, truly serve.
I don't want to disparage the many people who choose careers in which they help others--to the contrary. But it frosts me to put our nation in subterranean debt to fund programs that falsely praise and honor what are in actuality one-year hires--when millions of people by their hard work (and often, similarly low pay) perform equally valuable "service." I'm not surprised the new Obama bill is called the GIVE Act, because we taxpayers certainly must.

It so happened that in the end, Zayde did not have the financial fruits of his labors. And were it up to Obama, if Zayde had been able to own a nice house, and it had perhaps even appreciated, the government's greedy hand would have forced its sale for death taxes--the only "bonus" for Zayde's commitment being his already-taxed savings confiscated to fund "service" programs--for participants lauded for selflessly fighting poverty.

Now that's ironic.

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