- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

House Majority Leader Dick Armey had a point the other day when he criticized President Bush's request for $560 million to support government-run volunteer programs for Americans next year, but he was wrong to call it "obnoxious."
Mr. Bush's immediate response to Mr. Armey was right in principle: "I think the country needs to provide opportunities for people to serve" as volunteers.
Even before his election, Mr. Bush was rightly encouraging volunteer service through community and faith-based organizations. His father, as president, referred to what American volunteers were already doing as "a thousand points of light."
Yes, George W. Bush's instincts are sound, but his asking American taxpayers to cough up a half billion dollars to encourage volunteers raises two serious questions.
First, it assumes that volunteerism needs a boost from government. Yet, from the foundation of the Republic, Americans have on their own initiative fought fires, raised barns, nursed the sick, and helped the poor, all without government prodding or assistance. Americans need not be told, much less subsidized by Washington, to be compassionate.
Second, when is a volunteer a volunteer? Common sense suggests that a volunteer is one who contributes his or her services freely. According to the dictionary, voluntary work is spontaneous and done without material profit or compensation. A "paid volunteer" is an oxymoron.
That being the case, Mr. Bush's request to subsidize an expanding AmeriCorps and Senior Corps may be the wrong way to go. Currently, the AmeriCorps pays about half its 50,000 "volunteers" $9,300 for 10 months of 40-hour weeks; the other "volunteers" receive $4,725 a year, the money to be used for college expenses.
There is no doubt that government-subsidized projects have done some good, but at what cost? Former President Bill Clinton called the AmeriCorps his "proudest achievement." Yet under his watch even in dollar terms the program was less than cost-effective. In 1993, the Omaha World-Herald reported that the Nebraska state government shelled out $19,896.60 to recruit each of its 23 Ameri-Corps "volunteers."
It is laudable for Mr. Bush to encourage Americans to show appreciation for their country by volunteer work in mental hospitals, day-care centers, and homes for the elderly. But why should taxpayers foot the bill?
I may feel strongly on this issue because of my own experience. Back in 1940, America was not yet a belligerent in World War II, but 21-year-olds were already being drafted for a year of military service, Only 20 at the time and a conscientious objector, I felt I owed my country an equal measure of civilian service. So, wholly on my own, I spent 15 months in voluntary activities between my junior and senior years at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
With no visible means of support, I earned my way doing odd jobs, e.g., working in the Sears cafeteria in Chicago. And I participated in church-sponsored work camps for the poor. Hitchhiking to Yakima, Wash., I dug pit privies for migrant laborers. In a coal town near Pittsburgh, I helped set up social services for unemployed miners.
A month after Hiroshima, I spent three years of voluntary service in war-ravaged Europe. As a field secretary of War Prisoners Aid of the World's YMCA, I worked among returning German POWs in Britain and West Germany for "maintenance plus $10 a month." Later, my stipend was raised to $25 a month.
When I returned in the fall of 1948 to enter Yale Graduate School, I was given no lump sum to pay for tuition.
This was volunteer service without the quotation marks or government subsidy.

Ernest W. Lefever is senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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