Serving America

BY JEFF CRAVENS: JAYHAWK BLUES

Published September 20, 2005

For the last week, I have been getting reports on relief efforts in the Gulf Coast from my friend, one of thousands of Red Cross volunteers in the region. While indulging myself going to bars or watching football games with my housemates, I have been reminded that many Americans are lending a hand to those in need. The rest of us should step up and take a greater stake in this country.

Jess Cox

In Jackson, Miss. where my friend is stationed, the Red Cross is giving individuals $360 for a head of a household and $300 for each additional family member. Most of these people - unlike some further South - are no longer living in shelters and are now trying to get their lives back together. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which apparently nobody has seen or been able to get in touch with in Jackson, is supposedly helping provide permanent housing. As the relief phase moves into the rebuilding phase, more volunteers will be needed to extend housing, health care and employment to Katrina survivors.

President Bush said in his speech last week that "We will not just rebuild, we will rebuild higher and better." Sounds good to me - like most of the rhetoric Bush uses - but I don't believe him and never will.

Historically, wars and crises have invoked a greater sense of duty for the average citizen. In response to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the establishment of programs like the Work Project Administration that created jobs and permanent infrastructure. During World War II, the entire country mobilized: Those who didn't fight often worked extra hours in factories and rationed goods.

We've seen our share of wars and crises lately, but what has Bush done? In response to Sept. 11, Bush told us to carry on as usual, to show no fear and to keep consuming. During Iraq, he gave the rich a tax cut and asked us to pray for the troops. Meanwhile, poor and disproportionately black citizens were paying with their lives for the war, much the same population who suffered in Katrina. My friend said of the survivors: "Some of them may have just lost their clothes, but they were poor to begin with." Bush's response to crises is similar to his response to most social problems: laissez-faire. As we saw on live television, this "hands-off" policy, in the case of the poorest and weakest citizens, is tantamount to violent neglect.

We must up our personal ante in this country, especially because our leaders aren't asking us to. One way to do that is through agencies like the Red Cross or in programs like Americorps. Americorps, sometimes called the domestic Peace Corps, connects more than 70,000 Americans to nonprofit organizations to meet the country's needs in education, public safety, health and the environment. Formally established in '93, Americorps combined Volunteers in Service to America, a program created by Johnson in '64, and the National Civilian Community Corps. VISTA creates permanent infrastructure to raise individuals and communities from poverty.

Another way to get people invested in this country, something I've been pondering for a while, would be a one-year national service requirement. Here's how it would work: Every young man and woman, preferably before the age of 23, would be required to spend a year in the military or any number of social welfare programs. Programs might include tutoring at an inner-city school, building houses on the Gulf Coast or helping out at an AIDS clinic. Nobody would be forced to join the military, but given the choice, some Americans inclined to combat might replace those who only enlisted for economic reasons.

I'm imagining the effect of this requirement on three groups of people: those who are compassionate and socially invested in this country, those who are compassionate but ignorant of social problems and those who are selfish, usually privileged and ignorant of social problems. The latter group - which I hope is very small - is a lost cause. Like Bush during Vietnam, they'd have enough money or know the right people to avoid service, or else they'd grudgingly complete their service. The first group would have worked for a good cause anyway, but this requirement would provide them a greater pool of allies and resources to draw upon. The second group is the most important: generally good people, but through status or circumstance they end up following the status quo. These are the people who desperately need to go down into the trenches. They need to go to Detroit, New Orleans, Baghdad - and not for two hours a week to tutor or for a week over spring break, but for at least a year. I say at least, because some of these people, after teaching in an inner-city school or working in a shelter, will not leave. They will see that they have a continuing duty to their fellow citizens.

Many people would criticize the type of requirement I have proposed and for different reasons. Some of their criticisms are valid, and implementing such a requirement would be an incredible public policy challenge. In the meantime, don't let Katrina become another tragic storm that we throw money at and forget about in a year or two. This is a chance for us to personally commit ourselves to a better, more decent society.

Cravens can be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.