Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Public Service and the Election

In the midst of a presidential campaign that seems to be increasingly mired in issues further and further removed from the lives and cares of most Americans it was encouraging to see both major party candidates on the cover of TIME magazine this week discussing the importance of public service. The feature article discusses how the number of volunteers in civic organizations has grown by over a million Americans in the last 5 years and that this new wave of volunteerism is bringing together the 2 largest generations in American history: baby boomers and the so-called "millenials" through civic engagement. In fact the National Conference on Citizenship's 2008 Civic Report Card, which will be unveiled this month, will show that "Americans overwhelmingly support policy changes to increase service incentives and opportunities". When these recent findings are combined with those of a new study by the AARP that found that boomers ranked "making a difference by helping others" as one of their most important goals, it is clear that Americans want to increase their service and feel that they should be asked to to more. Riding this wave is Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy who is introducing a bipartisan national service bill, the "Serve America Act", before congress with Republican Orrin Hatch that aims to recruit 175,000 Americans of all ages to tackle national problems such as health care, poverty, education, energy and the environment. He will announce more details about the bill this Friday, which will hopefully ignite debate and discussion about the issue of civic engagement.

So far we know that the new bill "would provide an estimated $5 billion over five years to encourage citizens from kindergarteners to retirees to get involved in community organizations, including faith-based groups, on a series of programs targeted at national problems.
The new corps members would be paid modest salaries to spend a year working on specific national problems. Employers would be eligible for tax cuts for giving workers time off to do community service, while a new venture capital fund would also be created to boost the creation of new service organizations."

To address on aspect of the proposed bill: giving tax incentives to employers to allow their employees time off to participate in public service would potentially be a great way to encourage corporations to engage in this unique yet proven method of workforce development (which I will discuss in a coming post). That is, helping to develop and enhance professional and organizational skills such as teamwork, outside-the-box thinking and problem-solving while at the same time building morale, increased employee retainment and boosting the public image and community relations of the company.

If the "Serve America Act" is passed, it would indeed bring about an impressive expansion of former national service initiatives undertaken under the presidencies of JFK, the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. However, let us keep in mind that the 1 billion dollars a year that this bill proposes would fund roughly 3 DAYS of our current occupation of Iraq (according to recent estimates by Joseph Stiglitz and the Congressional Research Service) OR five C130 Specter Gunships (the planes responsible for the continual bombardment and deaths of Afghan civilians in our escalating war in Afghanistan). Given that Iraq and Afghanistan are just two of the countries where the Pentagon admints to maintaining some of their 761 admitted military bases, (according to the Pentagon's declassified 2008 "Base Structure Report) and that neither Obama nor McCain have seriously discussed closing a single one during the 2008 campaign, it is assured that no matter who is elected, we will continue to spend outragous sums of money to maintain our military presence across the globe that will dwarf spending on much needed social programs such as the ones that will benefit from the Kennedy-Hatch Bill if it is enacted.

That said, regardless of whom is elected this November, it will remain of the utmost importance to maintain pressure on our elected leaders to support programs such as those offered here at Cabrini Connections throughout their stints in office and not only around election time. We need to take note of the campaign promises that the candidates are making about public service and the importance of civic engagement and hold them to supporting these programs with not only their rhetoric, but government funds and other necessary resources. This will ensure that the "new era of service" and "call to service" promised by McCain and Obama, respectively, will provide potential volunteers and their communities with more than one way tickets to Iraq and Afghanistan.

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