Public service embodies America’s spirit
By Todd Cohen
A crusade by short-sighted tax-cutters aims to gut part of what is best about America.
The American spirit is rooted in the idea of helping your neighbor.
It expresses itself in public policies that encourage charitable giving and the work of the nonprofit sector.
And it is embodied in a rich mosaic of public-service programs that have engaged generations of Americans in the shared task of serving people and communities.
Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, a public enterprise that is a crown jewel of our culture of giving and has dispatched over 200,000 Americans to service in 139 countries.
Now under attack is another public treasure of our giving culture, a domestic version of the Peace Corps that was launched in 1963 and operates under the umbrella of the Corporation for National and Community Service, engaging five million Americans a year in service.
Many of those volunteers get stipends, but they are modest at best, and the return on that taxpayer investment is priceless, both for the people and communities the volunteers serve, and for the lessons the volunteers themselves learn.
But now, pandering to public outrage over a marketplace hijacked by big banks, and over a government unable to instantly fix our critically wounded economy, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to eliminate dozens of federal programs and offices, including the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Eliminating programs that do not work or benefit the bottom line is a tough but often necessary decision for every organization, from the federal government to small nonprofits, particularly in our turbulent and uncertain economy.
But one needs more than a measuring spoon to gauge what works and to assess costs and benefits.
As a growing number of socially-responsible companies are learning, social and environmental returns are as vital to the ultimate bottom line as profits.
And in the case of public-service programs like AmeriCorps that operate under the Corporation for National and Community Service, dollars alone cannot begin to tell the tale.
The slash-and-burn mindset of many Americans and elected officials who equate government and taxes with a totalitarian state is blind to the crucial fact that both are central to our ongoing experiment in democracy.
We pay taxes for our military and our local police, firefighters and emergency workers to keep us secure.
We pay taxes for our public schools to educate our children, and for our community colleges and public universities to prepare smart workers and productive citizens.
We pay taxes for our government to build and maintain our roads and public transit systems, and to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe.
We can and should argue among ourselves, with civility, over the proper size of the government and the degree to which it can or should seek to right social wrongs, or encroach on individual freedom in the interest of the common good.
The result of those conversations invariably will reflect compromises that do not make everyone happy.
There should be no question, however, about the value of investing modest public funds in public-service programs that enlist Americans to serve our communities.
That investment sustains and fosters a legacy of giving that helps define who we are as a people.
Terminating those programs in the name of cutting costs and taxes reflects a fixation on the same quick-gain mentality that drives the financial institutions that have trashed our economy.
The crusade to kill public-service programs to save a few dollars, which likely will be handed right back to wealthy people and big corporations in the form of tax cuts and incentives, reflects political math and public policy that fail to fully fathom the spirit and character of America’s true bottom line.