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This has been a week of superlatives for volunteering. The country, directed by President Clinton, is focusing on the power of individuals to effect change for their communities and for the nation as a whole. This week began with the President's Summit for America's Future, a three-day conference on civic action which wants to engage volunteers and collect corporate money to help two million children by the year 2000. In a rally for volunteerism in Philadelphia, President Clinton spoke words of inspiration to the 5,000 listeners who joined him: "We're still losing too many kids to crime, to drugs, to not having a decent income in their home and to not having a bright future. And we're here because we don't think we have to put up with it, and we believe together we can change it."
The President's Summit comes at a significant moment, both socially and politically. According to recent studies by Robert Putnam, popularized in his article "Bowling Alone," rates of volunteerism in America are down. Although the nuances of the findings have been contested, it is generally agreed that hours devoted personally to hands-on volunteering have dropped significantly over the past 50 years. Many argue that the decline is rooted in government action crowding out individual volunteering by undermining a sense of personal responsibility. We--as a nation but more significantly, as the young and educated of this country--are less involved in our communities; and the Summit is responding to the decline in communal care and civic responsibility.
However, lurking beneath the lofty talk and the laudable action, a more talk and the laudable action, a more troubling political issue seems to be transpiring. While the 5,000 rallyers listened to President Clinton, several thousand more people gathered at another rally a number of miles away--this one to protest. According to Brian Becker, a coordinator of the National People's Campaign that is sponsoring a counter-conference to the Summit, "the [President's] summit is all hoopla and propaganda." Becker and the thousands that joined him claim that the President's conference and the campaign for which it is a kick-off are a paltry and thinly-veiled attempt to justify both the reduction in government aid to the needy in our country and the downsizing and mass lay-offs occurring in major corporations. As Becker explained: "Charity and volunteerism, however noble, can't make up the difference in damage caused by the new welfare legislation." The concern among the protesters is that this new push towards volunteering will be seen by government officials as a replacement for welfare programs, thus exonerating the government from its responsibility to provide minimal care and subsistence for those at the fringes of our community.
Echoes of this sentiment came from a surprising corner. Former President Jimmy Carter, a key figure in the three-day Summit, spoke of a new "harshness" in the American people's feelings about and the government's policy toward poor people: "There has been a hardening of concern in the Federal Government...a discrimination against people who are poor and deprived that is quite traumatic in its impact." What is particularly interesting in Carter's words is that he spoke not only in his own name, but in the name of the former Republican President Bush, as well.
Volunteerism is an integral component of a well-functioning democracy, both for those that are served and for those that serve. As such, it is wonderful that President Clinton is addressing the recent dwindling of volunteer efforts and working to create a more robust civic life. However, in the history of modern America, volunteerism has never existed in complete isolation from government support. Individuals alone, without the financial and institutional structure that government can provide, can do only so much. Ultimately, this is not a debate about volunteerism versus government. It is a question of caring for those in need. If our nation--both the individual citizens and the government that unifies them--does not take responsibility for those who have nothing, then we will have made a true mockery of President Clinton's words: "we believe together we can change it."
Talia Milgrom-Elcott's column appears on alternate Fridays.
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