My post chiding the Obama administration for not including national service in their economic recovery plan (according to press reports) has stirred up quite a reaction over at Huffington Post. Most people agreed (in fact, I can’t recall getting this positive a reaction on anything I’ve written in years).
But some pointed out that my service post was mooted out when Obama and Colin Powell announced a massive effort to mobilize volunteers on Martin Luther King day. (Click here to sign up for volunteer opportunities)

First, I think what Obama & Co are doing on MLK day is truly fantastic. King was deeply committed to service and I echo my mentor Harris Wofford’s long campaign to make the holiday a “day on instead of a day off.” It signals that Obama wants to engage citizens to take action, not just wait for the government to do everything.
But volunteering is not the same as national service. What anyone who has worked in or managed a charitable organization will tell you is that unpaid volunteers can be noble and useful but that they’re not sufficient. Full-time people, or at least half time people, provide a whole different type of value. For one thing, they can actually manage the unpaid volunteers and make sure they’re not standing around with nothing to do.
Second, they can be trained to do higher-skill tasks. the National Civilian Community Corps was able to do extraordinary work after Katrina because these full-time corps could had been trained how to refurbish and build new homes and do damage assessments. (The 4,000 NCCC members also managed 227,000 volunteers.)
Finally, many of the secondary effects of national service — the way that two dramatically different corps members come to know and understand each other — happens over a long time, during 12 hour days serving together.
In the 1970s, Democrats often acted like government could solve most problems. In the 1980s, Republicans argued that “points of light” — a constellation of individual voluntary efforts — could solve the nation’s problems. By the 1990s, a bi-partisan consensus developed that while both government and volunteerism were crucial, so too was a third element — a fleet of full-time service workers. True now more than ever.
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