The Limitations of Civility, Volunteerism,
Self-Sufficiency and Empowerment

Funds are not likely to be made available by a majority in Congress and by the Administration to replicate what works to scale for the poor and the inner city. Instead, the Foundation is concerned that rhetoric will replace resources. This occurred in the 1980s.

We are concerned about words like "civility," "voluntarism," "self sufficiency," and "empowerment." Experience has suggested that these notions can play a role in policy that works. But they also can be used as political camouflage to conceal inaction. So we are likely to have 1980s deja vu all over again.


For example, it is fashionable to lament that families, neighborhoods, schools and congregations are in disrepair because Americans have lost the sense of small town civic mindedness that Alexis de Tocqueville praised over a century and a half ago -- the "habits of the heart" on which he said democracy depends.1 A healthy civic society is said to promote considerate manners, neighborliness, a willingness to help others out in the community -- a sense of civility. There have been a profusion of projects and commissions on civic renewal and civility headed by persons of widely differing political philosophies. For example, such "communitarian" philosophy has been called "the ultimate Third Way" by an advisor to the Administration.2

However, in some cases, calls for a civic society and more civility appear to involve those at the top, who have benefitted from supply-side economics, asking those at the bottom to behave themselves. "Those who sit atop the social and economic pyramid always speak of love, while those at the bottom always speak of justice."3 The real issue is inequality, not incivility. As Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University has concluded:4

When the growing gap between rich and poor leads the affluent to flee public schools, public parks and public transportation for privileged enclaves, civic virtue becomes difficult to sustain, and the common good fades from view. Any attempt to revitalize community must contend with the economic as well as the cultural forces eating away at the social fabric. We need a political philosophy that asks what economic arrangements are hospitable to self-government and the civic virtues that sustain it.

Volunteerism, Self-Sufficiency and Empowerment

What about the civic virtue of volunteerism? A highly publicized 1997 bipartisan national summit on voluntarism has been viewed with skepticism by many observers. The summit was held in Philadelphia. At the time of the summit, the New York Times interviewed residents in the impoverished Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia. One resident thought that summit was a bit "naive" because "you need a certain expertise among the volunteers, and in communities like Logan, people don't have the expertise." In an article on the new national organization created at the Philadelphia summit, Youth Today magazine asked whether the organization was "delivering for youth or fatally flawed." The executive director of one Midwest nonprofit community group concluded that the new creation was "long on talk and hoopla and short on doing." A national nonprofit executive director called it "irrelevant window dressing." The director of a non-profit community program in the neighborhood observed, "Volunteering is really good, but people need a program to volunteer for, and in order to do that, you have to have dollars." Pablo Eisenberg, former Executive Director of the Center for Community Change and now a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, concluded that "no matter whether you attract lots of volunteers, money is still the most important ingredient in reducing poverty and helping poor people. You need money even to organize volunteers." After describing how volunteerism increases the gap between rich and poor (because most volunteers tend to stay in their immediate social and economic world), Sarah Mosle concludes a Sunday New York Times article by showing that public resources must drive private volunteerism: "Government spending causes volunteering. You can't have a volunteer in a school without a schoolhouse. Government institution-building increases volunteering."5

Or take an international comparison. In the early 1990s, America won the war in the Persian Gulf because of large numbers of well trained professional staff, large numbers of well trained support staff and a huge amount of high quality equipment. Yet, when it comes to the inner city and the truly disadvantaged, we are told that there is not enough money for adequate and adequately paid professional staff, adequate and adequately paid support staff, and good equipment -- like computers and facilities in public schools and at the headquarters of the inner-city, grassroots community-based nonprofit organizations that are responsible for a great deal of what works. Instead, we are told, for example, that a grassroots community group ought to get new revenues from charitable tax deductions or grants from the public and private sectors for, say, eighteen to twenty-four months. Then it ought to convert into "self sufficient" operations by using a lot of (often poorly trained) volunteers from suburbia who "are here to help you." Volunteers should be combined with "partnerships" and "coalition building" among other financially competing and often penurious groups in the inner city. This, we are told, will somehow lead to the "empowerment" of our neighborhoods and our schools.

But it doesn't work that way -- as anyone outside of Washington who labors in the trenches in the inner city knows. This is the rhetoric of those who would cover up the need to invest in the human capital of our children and youth.

Notes and Sources

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Harper Perennial, 1969 edition).
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  3. Dana Milbank, "Needed: Catch Word for Bush Ideology," Washington Post, February 1, 2001, p. A1.
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  5. James Carroll, "Black Caucus Sends A Message About Justice," Washington Post, January 9, 2000, p. A19.
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  7. Michael J. Sandel, "Making Nice Is Not the Same as Doing Good," New York Times, December 29, 1996.
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  9. Pam Belluck, "Urban Volunteers Strain to Reach Fragile Lives," New York Times, April 27, 1997, p. A1; James Bennett, "At Volunteerism Rally, Leaders Paint Walls and a Picture of Need," New York Times, April 27, 1997, p. A1; Bill Alexander, "On and Off the Wagon: America's Promise At Two," Youth Today, July/August 1999; Sara Mosle, "The Vanity of Volunteerism," New York Times Magazine, July 2, 2000, p. 22.
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