Americans poised to heed Obama's call to service

January 25, 2009|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

The seventh annual January jobs fair at the St. Frances Academy Community Center in East Baltimore had its largest turnout ever, with nearly double the number of job-seekers from previous years. Five hundred and fifty-five men and women walked through a winter blast on Monday, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, to get a warm meal and some advice on writing a resume and applying for jobs - and to meet with representatives of companies willing to hire them.

With unemployment growing in the midst of recession, it's no surprise that an urban jobs fair, particularly one for people with limited education and skills, would set a record for attendance.

But 125 volunteers! A record number of men and women turned out to help the unemployed in some way. Now that was surprising.

And thrilling.

It was a big week for America, with the inauguration of Barack Obama on Tuesday. But Monday, the busiest King Day of Service yet, carried its own sense of history: hundreds of thousands of Americans, reportedly more than ever in some cities, heeding Mr. Obama's call to volunteer for a day. Organized service events across the country doubled to more than 12,000 this year, according to the government agency that tracks them. For the first time since 15 years ago, when Congress attached doing good to it, King Day seemed to have some kind of seismic impact. It was an exciting day, rich with inspiring stories. Combined with the call for a "new era of responsibility" in his inaugural address, Mr. Obama's MLK Day pitch seemed to prime the country for the national service he promised as a candidate.

Mr. Obama wants to expand AmeriCorps, currently turning away applicants, from 75,000 to 250,000 slots. He wants to double the Peace Corps to 16,000 by 2012. He wants to expand YouthBuild to give 50,000 poor kids a chance to finish high school and pick up skills while building affordable housing in their communities. For college students, Mr. Obama has proposed a $4,000 annual tax credit for 100 hours of public service a year.

That's all good stuff, but Mr. Obama could be even bolder. He should connect national service with his economic recovery plan.

If that doesn't happen, the new president could squander a historic opportunity to tap into a national need and desire for public service, says Steven Waldman, the editor of the religious Web site Beliefnet.com.

"Too often, modern politicians have viewed national service as a lovely little 'worthwhile program,' certainly a swell idea but not something that trumps the critical business of saving the economy," Mr. Waldman wrote recently. "That's the wrong way of looking at it."

Well-managed national service programs could put thousands of Americans to work and ensure a good return for the taxpayers' investment; they're a relatively inexpensive way of getting schools weatherized, bridges painted, veterans hospitals staffed. They provide young people, in particular, with an understanding of sacrifice and a sense of accomplishment. Expanding national public service and offering it to people eager to get their hands dirty for their country almost guarantees a new generation of citizens engaged, vigilant and concerned with the greater good.

I have supported paid national service for many years - two years for every American once he or she reaches the age of 18, with deferment optional until the age of 21, when service would become mandatory. There should be choices: domestic/civic, foreign/humanitarian and military. That last option is essential if we are to continue to resist a draft and rely on volunteers.

"You can't do what we've been asked to do with the number of people we have," Undersecretary of the Army Nelson M. Ford told U.S. News & World Report this month, being far more candid in that one sentence than anyone from the Bush administration, starting with former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, ever was about troop shortages. Getting more volunteers is going to be important if the Obama administration is to send 30,000 more troops to the increasingly violent Afghanistan war.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Obama can inspire more sacrifice and service, particularly for the military, than his predecessors did. But in this moment of history, he certainly seems to have the power to do that - and a citizenry primed to step up and pitch in.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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