July 12 2002

Commentary

Help Wanted: Professional Volunteers?

By Jason F. Wright

I’ll be honest, earlier this year when President Bush first announced his “volunteer” initiative, FreedomCorp; I drank the Kool-Aid as quickly as the next guy.

I thought, Amen! The President has hit a grand slam. We should volunteer. We should give 4,000 hours in our lifetime volunteering for a good cause. I got goose bumps just thinking about it. I was primed to contribute to what President Bush calls his, “accumulation of many acts of kindness.”

But that seems so long ago. Further reflection and a peek under the rug of patriotism has changed my mind. This idea is as bad as “Rocky V”, complete with a big budget and predictable heart-tugging plot.

Start with the numbers. President Bush, who I agree with 95% of the time, has asked for almost $600,000,000 to feed his new “volunteer” baby for the next fiscal year. Count those zeros, folks. That’s six — hundred — million of our taxpayer dollars for a “volunteer” program. Combine that number with funds already being spent annually on PeaceCorps, SeniorCorps, and the other Bad Idea Corps and it’s nearly one — billion — dollars. This, in our current economy, with one of the highest tax burdens in history, and during a conservative administration? File that away in the so-hard-to-believe-it-makes-my-eyeballs-hurt category.

You’re asking, “Doesn’t the government have a role to play?” Perhaps, but only at state and locals levels as supporters of programs, endorsers of good will, but not as leaders. They can make it easier for us to volunteer, just as an employer might, but the Constitution does not guarantee federal funding of professional volunteer programs.

Let me be clear. I am all over volunteering like a fly on my sister’s secret meatloaf. I believe that there is nothing in this world that brings more fulfillment and honest satisfaction than serving your fellow man.

However, real volunteerism does not require a government program. Volunteerism from the heart should not require paperwork in triplicate and then three managers to process it.

Take the case of missing Utah teen, Elizabeth Smart. Some are calling it the most organized missing person’s case in history. Thousands of real volunteers, most of whom have never even met the Smart family, have contributed tens of thousands of hours to her search. Local churches have chipped in and charitable family and missing children non-profits have lent resources. All this — prepare to gasp — without Uncle Sam’s oversight.

Americans have a knack for stepping in when needed. History has shown that over and over again. When hurricanes hit South Florida, the vast majority of help came from real volunteers. When tornadoes ripped Oklahoma to shreds it was volunteers who arrived from all over the country with strong backs and willing shoulders. Need I even mention the extraordinary effort put forth by real volunteers in the hours, days and weeks after 9/11?

Now, I understand that the fine men and women serving in these various professional volunteer programs are well-meaning. But is it really volunteering when the government pays their way to and from their assignment? Or when they pick up the tab for their rent while also kicking in a living allowance? Is it really volunteering when the government reduces or defers their student loans then asks taxpayers to pay each a $6,000 readjustment allowance?

Why doesn’t President Bush trust us? Why doesn’t he believe that we will respond voluntarily when war, natural disaster, or the 76 year-old neighbor’s long grass comes calling? I think we will. And my hunch is that it won’t take a billion dollars to get us there.

So you want to volunteer? You want to make a difference? Give blood, pay the toll on the turnpike of the car behind you, spend an afternoon at a retirement home, weed someone’s garden, clean a perfect stranger’s gutters when they are not home.

Then if they offer you money for your act of kindness, look them in the eye and say, “Sorry, I do not work for the federal government and I don’t expect to be paid for my generosity. I’m a real volunteer.”

Jason F. Wright (jwright@ff.org) is the Vice President of Frontiers of Freedom, a non-profit, non-partisan public policy organization dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans and restoring constitutional limits on the extent and power of government.

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