Jewish World Review August 27, 2002 / 19 Elul, 5762
William J. Bennett
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- In his inaugural address, President Bush challenged Americans to become "citizens, not spectators." Several months later, in the wake of Sept. 11, he called upon all Americans to take an active role in serving their neighbors and their nation.
Specifically, he asked us to contribute two years over the course of our lives to community service, whether it is building homes for the poor, tutoring schoolchildren in reading and math, patrolling urban neighborhoods or volunteering at the local firehouse.
One of the vehicles the president has created for harnessing our renewed patriotism is the USA Freedom Corps, a White House council that would coordinate volunteerism, civics and service in an attempt to build a culture of "citizenship, service and responsibility."
Some conservatives argue that the president's plan, which includes expanding the national service programs AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, threatens to corrode and distort the work of private charities and open yet another avenue to pork-barrel spending and government bureaucracy.
These fears were quite understandable during the frenetic years of the previous administration. I myself was critical of AmeriCorps, for it often seemed undisciplined--both in its management and the design of its programs. But the agency that runs it, the Corporation for National and Community Service, has done much to put the program's financial and management house in order.
And the changes to the agency that are incorporated in the proposed Citizen Service Act--which would reauthorize the corporation's three main programs, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America--promise to transform the agency into one that uses government resources effectively to build up the strength of the civic sector and to ensure that citizens, rather than government, take responsibility for the health and well-being of their communities.
Expanding a government program to promote voluntary action does, of course, seem counterintuitive. But since our nation's beginnings, the relationship between the state and civil society often has been positive and mutually supportive. Government has often acted as a catalyst for civic association; it can act as such again. In fact, the changes to the corporation envisioned by Bush are designed to do just that.
For instance, the Citizen Service Act would make the recruitment and management of more volunteers for charities an explicit goal of national service programs. It would also amend the law to allow AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps volunteers to build the administrative, technological and financial capacities of nonprofits, rather than simply to provide beneficial services to individuals.
This sort of activity strengthens the "armies of compassion," not by making nonprofits into government's servants but by helping them do more of the good they already do. Likewise, capacity-building efforts with voluntary groups involved in public safety, public health and disaster relief would improve their ability to work together and with government law enforcement and rescue agencies when terrorists (or other catastrophes) strike again.
The Citizen Service Act's reforms represent a major change in the way national service programs are administered, making them more efficient and responsive to local needs. The act is not a cure-all, nor does it pretend to be; good stewardship of the program will always be important, and regular oversight must keep the earlier problems from recurring.
But passing the Citizen Service Act is clearly a step in the right direction, and Congress should take that step when it returns in September.