Volunteerism is Slavery?

Posted by Zach Maurin on July 21, 2008

Jonah Goldberg, an LA Times columnist, has taken a bold stand against Barack Obama’s speech which called all Americans to serve their country or community through programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. He claims that Obama will violate the 13th Amendment which states that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, shall not exist within the United States.

“There’s a weird irony at work when Sen. Barack Obama, the black presidential candidate who will allegedly scrub the stain of racism from the nation, vows to run afoul of the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery,” says Goldberg.

    Apparently, expanding national service programs and encouraging young Americans to public service is involuntary servitude because “we have a healthier culture of service without doubling the size of the Peace Corps or pushing another 250,000 into AmeriCorps.” Since Goldberg is content with the way things are, there’s no need for change, right?
    Wrong. And wrong on so many levels.
    Obama precisely states that if elected President, he will “set a goal for middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year,” while doubling that amount for college students. First, 50 hours of service is approximately 2.08 full days of service…out of 365 days in one year. To speak about this matter with such an affronted tone as Goldberg does is a bit ludicrous. Realistically speaking, if those 2 full days of service are spread out within a span of 1.5 months, that is 0.35 hours a week. So if slavery is what Goldberg calls it, then quite frankly, that’s only .05 hours a day that we have to endure such cruelty.
    Second, the accusation that Obama will violate the 13th Amendment is completely taken out of context. What Goldberg says is this: Obama will meet these goals by making “service compulsory by merely compelling schools to make it compulsory.” What Obama actually says is: “We’ll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs” and for college students, “I have proposed an annual American Opportunity Tax Credit of $4,000” in exchange for 100 hours of public service. 
    In other words, school districts must provide the opportunity to meet this goal—not once does he speak of the students themselves. For college students, he will make 100 hours of public service an additional requirement to his “American Opportunity Tax Credit,” the centerpiece for his higher education plan.
    Moreover, this $4,000 scholarship is money funded by the government, not from personal college funds. Goldberg’s claim that “you’ll lose money you can’t afford to lose” is not exactly close to the truth. Perhaps, Zifnab, who commented on Goldberg’s column, says it best: “The very idea of doing community service in return for scholarship money. Why, that’s like doing work in an office for nothing but a paycheck. The horror.” 
    Lastly, there is an important distinction between encouraging and requiring. A military draft is a requirement. Offering incentives for more public service is encouragement. Goldberg criticizes the expansion of national service programs as if it is unwelcome. Little does he care to know that in 2006 alone, more than 61 million Americans dedicated 8.1 billion hours to volunteering. In a 2002 poll, 70% of Americans thought universal service was a good idea. So Mr. Goldberg, you may be part of the 30% who disagree but please, keep your thoughts to yourself.


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