Most Americans don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about their responsibilities as citizens. Every couple of years elections come whizzing by and usually less than 50% of those eligible bother to check off their favorites on the ballot. Even less regularly that notice from the jury commission comes in the mail requiring presence as a potential juror. Most cringe at the prospect of sitting in judgment of their peers.
If pressed to define their obligations as citizens many will blurt out that they hold a job, pay taxes and don’t break the law, and then add with annoying arrogance that these are more than sufficient to fulfill their citizenship requirements. Perhaps not a bad threesome of contributions to the well being of the state, but hardly examples of compelling participation in local, state or national life.
With the election of Barack Obama and at the urging of Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch ( the dynamic duo of bipartisanship) there is now a real push to incorporate national service into the political culture of American life. Within days the President is certain to sign what has been called the Senator Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which is designed to expand the public service youth filled AmericaCorps and also add four new service corps.
At a cost of $ 6 billion the legislation will provide stipends to those who give their time in public service . The stipends, which are over $ 5,300 can be used to help defray the cost of college tuitions. There is even a segment of the bill that provide money to retirees who also volunteer for national service.
The development of the national service program adds a federal component(with cash rewards) to what is becoming a growing trend toward civic involement in this country. Young Americans, unlike too many of their parents, seem to get the importance of helping others, whether it is in school based programs, church social justice activities or community volunteering. They understand that being a good citizen is more than just going to work everyday, not cheating on their taxes and avoiding jail time.
Already there is heightened interest in the Serve America Act and many of those young Americans who supported and voted for Barack Obama share his view that putting this country back on track is not just economic and financial, but social and environmental and educational. While some critics were quick to slam the $ 6 billion price tag for the Serve America Act and government-sponsored public service, this is without question a worthwhile initiative. This country needs a boost in leadership and social action from the next generation if we are to face the challenges of the future.