Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Hands

There is a fair amount of chatter on the Intertubz about The Precious' plans to require public service of all "young people", though the current word at the transition site is nebulous. There are two differet aspects to this overall proposal that need to be addressed separately. Here's the first one, which is tying education to performing public service.

The proposals, taken from the site, are as follows:

Integrate Service into Learning

  • Expand Service-Learning in Our Nation's Schools: Obama and Biden will set a goal that all middle and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year. They will develop national guidelines for service-learning and will give schools better tools both to develop programs and to document student experience. Green Job Corps: Obama and Biden will create an energy-focused youth jobs program to provide disadvantaged youth with service opportunities weatherizing buildings and getting practical experience in fast growing career fields.
  • Expand YouthBuild Program: Obama and Biden will expand the YouthBuild program, which gives disadvantaged young people the chance to complete their high school education, learn valuable skills and build affordable housing in their communities. They will grow the program so that 50,000 low-income young people a year a chance to learn construction job skills and complete high school.
  • Require 100 Hours of Service in College: Obama and Biden will establish a new American Opportunity Tax Credit that is worth $4,000 a year in exchange for 100 hours of public service a year.
  • Promote College Serve-Study: Obama and Biden will ensure that at least 25 percent of College Work-Study funds are used to support public service opportunities instead of jobs in dining halls and libraries.

Whenever I read "disadvantaged youth" in the context of some plan to put kids to work, my warning bells go off. This wonderfully uplifting and noble idea of community service bundles a truckload of class assumptions that need to be unpacked. Here are a few questions that immediately jump out at me:

  • What does "community service" have to do with formal education?
  • What is going to count as such service? Are kids going to be put to work providing free labor for jobs that really should be done by a well paid adult?
  • Are kids going to be working for religious organizations? Will religious groups get funding and other goodies by calling their youth operations "community service"?
  • Why shouldn't kids get to count their religious activities as community service? I know a few kids who build houses for the poor through a church program, for example. Would that count?
  • How are kids going to be assigned to it - what guarantees are there that it won't be poor kids get to do the dirty jobs and well off kids get to do the stuff that will look good on college applications?
  • Why is it just "disadvantaged" students who are to be put to work in construction jobs, a negative growth industry at present?
  • Why aren't "advantaged" students being required to learn manual trades?
  • What safeguards are in place to ensure gender equity in "service" assignments?
  • Where will this work be done? On school grounds? Will these programs guarantee safe working conditions and free transportation to and from work sites to the kids' homes?
  • Are these kids expected to provide materials (work clothes, building/office supplies, etc.) to get the jobs done?
  • Is this service to be done on top of school, homework, existing jobs, family obligations, and the activities the kids have picked for themselves? Are the kids going to be asked to "sacrifice" some other part of their lives to supply free labor to the "community"?
  • What about kids whose work at home is needed to free up their parents to work jobs and make money, such as tending younger siblings and doing housework?
  • Are kids who refuse to provide free labor going to have their academic standing downgraded?
  • Are these rules going to be applied to private schools, or is it only public school students who need to provide free labor?
  • How will any of these high school oriented service opportunities help the girls I discussed in Dreams of Our Daughters? Are you really going to tell these girls that what they are doing just isn't enough, thank you very much, and that they need to work for the community in addition to trying to keep their lives from spinning out of control?

It strikes me that these kids don't owe anyone any service, but that a hell of a lot is owed to them, such as fully funded schools, more access to college, teachers who are paid enough to attract top talent, smaller classes, full employment for their parents and an employment base that is not divided into the pink and blue collar have-nots and the white collar gimme-mores.

Looking ahead to college, it is a little less coercive, but still does nothing to relieve the burdens on lower class students trying to get ahead. A tax credit for community service? Oh, please, not more of this rewarmed Republican bullshit. Why should poor kids have to take time out from their studying to scrounge up some tax credit? How about providing no interest loans to kids from families with incomes less than the national average?

Trying to convert college-based jobs for free labor in "the community" is stupid. My work study jobs were as a research assistant to professors who encouraged me to use it as an opportunity to expand my own interests. Other students who worked in food service or the library (items singled out in the above proposal) made money while on campus, reducing transportation and scheduling issues, plus could more easily mix studies with work. I don't think these "poor people better work!" proposals understand how difficult it can be to get around if you are already short of funds and don't have a car or ready access to convenient public transportation. "Service" sounds great until you factor in how time is precious when you need to work as well as go to school.

And none of it addresses the social inequities, that well-off students will not need to do these things and can spend their time 100% dedicated to their studies, or "networking" with their buddies and professors to schmooze their way into plum job opportunities.

In the end, whatever the good intentions, these "service" plans continue to reduce poor and working class teens and young adults to "hands" - what physical labor can we extract from you because your parents aren't rich enough to shield you from economic want? And let's be clear that this is not something that is going to touch the offspring of the well-to-do. That segment of society already picks and chooses what "service" it wishes to perform, if any. Participation in these programs brands the kids as being from the losing end of the socio-economic spectrum. They are being asked to fill in the community maintenance shortfalls that exist because of the screwed up social and economic policies that have impoverished communities since Reagan.

The idea that these kids owe society something when they have yet to receive much of anything boggles my mind.



hesperia said...

Nice source of free labour too - does a terrific job of obscuring the conflict between labour and capital. To me, it also smacks of the notion that a lot of social/economic/political ills can be resolved through "charitable works". Takes the pressure off politicians to make the real changes that would change unequal relations while doing nothing to accomplish that goal. I think it sucks as an idea and even more so because so many people think it sounds good.

Unknown said...

I think the program smells corruption and waste. I'll be against any such program.

I was lucky. I partook of a higher education when it was affordable to anyone who wanted it. I want those same opportunities available to everyone, not just the rich or those who are able get into thousands of dollars in debt. I want a school system and an economy of opportunities, not opportunities bogged down with mandates that stymie our freedoms.

Mike J. said...

If the $4,000 figure in exchange for 100 hours of service is actual income, it's not a bad deal. It's enough to pay for a semester at a public university. But if it's simply a deduction, then it's practically starvation wages.

Anonymous said...

Even worse than that is what it used to say.

Nath said...

In addition to the good points on the side of those doing the work already made, where are all these volunteer places going to come from? Who says that all these institutions actually need/want this kind of labour? It takes a lot of work to supervise an untrained kid, even if they are actually willing to do what they were sent to do, and the net result in productivity may be close to zero, if not negative.

Sean Grove (CoThink) said...


Just as a heads up, I actually joined a company that generates projects for college students, so take what I say with the requisite grain of salt.

Speaking strictly for college-level students, there are plenty of positions that can be filled. We've worked with orphanages, food banks, outreach programs, bar associations, and on and on. Each of them had dozens of needs that they couldn't fill, or couldn't afford to fill. We cut the needs up into projects for college students (who are in the appropriate classes), they do their work, and they get academic credit. If there is any profit generated, the students are entitled to a portion of that (it is capitalism after all) - and now they're going to be introducing some tax credits it seems. As Mike J. said, if it's reduction in tax obligations rather than payment, it's likely to mean very little for students.

But that doesn't mean that integrating community needs and projects into class curriculum is a bad idea - it's a win-win from what I can understand.

Koshem Bos said...

The ideas proposed by O/B smell old and stale. They adhere to old Americanism that believes in hard work in a literal sense.

Financially, the ideas are unsound. I always told my kids: "don't work, just study and I'll provide everything you need." Students make close to minimal wage, while an adult like me makes many times as much. "When you are a parent, just do the same for your kids." This a much more efficient way for education, generational growth and the results are quite obvious.

To repeat, work study is worth something if the study part is significant, otherwise Obama/Biden's ideas are early 20th century ones.

Anglachel said...

Sean Grove,

This sounds interesting because it is directly connected to the student's academic interest and directly benefits the student academically and financially.

I am concerned about the "couldn't afford to fill" line, however. Don't get me wrong; I come from a family that sees volunteering as something important to do. I work with grade schoolers, one brother donates time to developmentally disabled adults, another works on rural water projects, one parent spent 25 years staffing the local crisis clinic hotline, and the other continues to do good works through the church.

But I do not want to see students pressured into providing free labor to organizations that just want to avoid adding to the payroll. We need to expand *employment* with living wages, not undermine adult workers with free child labor.

It also doesn't address the lack of funding for local schools or for college. These issues need to be addressed before children are pressured into jobs. Finally, the class bias has to be addressed, or education ceases to be a route to economic advancement and becomes a system for enforcing class.


Sean Grove (CoThink) said...


You raise some good points - I work for a company that finds projects and works on integrating them into the curriculum for schools in a way that's non-intrusive, and doesn't require professors (we only do work at the college and university level currently) to contribute too much of their time to management and oversight.

You can check out a few of the projects that we're running right now at our blog (I'll post the link if you don't mind), to get an idea.

One of the big concerns we have is student exploitation. We make sure that if there's any profit or intellectual property generated, the students are entitled to a share of that. We make sure that none of the projects come with the expectation of cheap labor for easy profits - rather, most of the projects we work with are run by professors (undergraduate research), students, or community leaders (food banks, churches, nearly all non-profit).

It most definitely does nothing to solve lack of funding, I certainly agree with that. But in this case, we didn't set out with that goal, rather we wanted student work to have meaning and make a positive impact. I don't know of any idea off the top of my mind to help with funding, particularly for middle and secondary schools (though here in California we've just considerably cut the budget for our CSU system, so university level funding may be an issue for us soon as well).

I'm not sure how class bias comes into play for a system of service learning. I would imagine it would be beneficial for anyone involved in the projects that we put together.

But then, I've already drunk the kool-aide, and I'm more than willing to hear what I've overlooked.

Cheers for your post!

Bookhorde said...

Reminds me of Ferdinand Marcos' various programs to getthe youth involved in building hsi "New Society" all the while he was looting the country.