Paying ‘Volunteers’

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Washington in recent days when Newt Gingrich's budget cutters sliced $17 billion out of this year's budget. An especially loud howl went up over one item in particular: the proposed cut in AmeriCorps, the national service program that employs young Americans in public service projects. But behind all the howls over AmeriCorps is a very critical question. What's involved is more than just the saving of several hundred million dollars. The real question is what kind of country have we become, and what kind of country do we want to be? President Clinton unveiled his vision for America just after his inauguration: He began pushing the national service program, which today employs 20,000 young Americans. A week ago on a visit to Tampa, the president lambasted the Republicans for cutting AmeriCorps. And he said: "Here in Florida after the hurricane, our volunteers, working with Habitat for Humanity, built 75 homes." Hold on a minute. Did I hear the president say "volunteers"? AmeriCorps workers aren't laboring for free; they're getting paid the minimum wage for their "volunteer work." And for every year they work, they're given a $4,725 tuition credit toward their college education. That's pretty good money for "volunteering." It sure beats flipping burgers at McDonald's for $4.50 an hour. What the president did was lump AmeriCorps workers with real volunteers, which is what Habitat workers are. I know, because I took part in a Habitat project in Chicago a few years ago, along with several hundred other people. Nobody was paid anything. And that's just the way a volunteer organization should work. A sense of compassion—the desire to do good—is at the heart of not only the Gospel but also America's tradition of civic virtue. As Christians we do good because our Lord commands it. And as citizens we do good as part of our obligation to the society we live in. It's a way to give something back for what we've received. That's what our forebears had in mind when they talked about republican virtue. In fact, volunteerism goes to the very heart of what it means to be an American. When Alexis de Tocqueville described his visit to the United States in 1831, he remarked that there were not 10 men in all of France doing what ordinary men do routinely in America. That is, helping their neighbors, starting libraries, building hospitals, and sending out missionaries. Traditional volunteerism illustrates civic duty and Christian compassion at their best in American life. But the secular world has no way to generate these kinds of values. In order to get volunteers, they have to pay them—through programs like AmeriCorps. I call it "bribery for compassion." What's at stake is what kind of society we are. Do we still have a heritage of Christian compassion and republican virtue? Or do we have to pay people to be good citizens? You and I ought to let our representatives know precisely what we think about funding for programs like AmeriCorps. What's at stake is the very character of American life.


Chuck Colson


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