In a ceremony fraught with political and generational symbolism, President Barack Obama today will sign the aptly named “Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education” (GIVE) Act (now the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act) at a White House ceremony, capping his campaign promise to ask Americans to reinvigorate their country through community service. GIVE represents a major redemption of candidate Obama’s promise to offer his most loyal and largest constituency, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, a chance to serve their country at the community level and in return earn assistance with the cost of their college education.
Not everyone is ready to join hands and sing the praises of the concept, however. While GIVE enjoyed bipartisan sponsorship in both the Senate and the House, that didn’t prevent a majority of Republicans from voting against the bill on final passage. They complained that the bill was “too expensive” and would crowd out pure volunteer work with program participants receiving a modicum of financial support for their efforts from the federal government. In the House, 149 of 175 Republicans voted “no,” joined by 19 of their colleagues in the Senate, including the party's two top leaders. With all Democrats voting in favor of GIVE, the core of the Republican’s “Just say no” caucus demonstrated how out of touch with the Millennial Generation they are.
Of those Republicans expressing their opposition in the Senate, only one, John Ensign of Nevada, was from a state that Obama carried. Even though both Republican Senators from such bright red states as Utah, Georgia and Mississippi could see the potential value of increasing the number of volunteers and college students in the country’s civic life, both GOP Senators from South Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Idaho made it clear that there were no circumstances under which their hostility to government could be softened by the merits of a patriotic cause.
As Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina put it on his Web site, "We need to recognize that this bill does represent a lot of what's wrong with our federal government today.... civil society works, because it is everything that government is not. It's small, it's personal, it's responsible, it's accountable.” And Louisiana Senator David Vitter spuriously argued, “This new federal bureaucracy would, in effect, politicize charitable activity around the country." Echoing Governor Sarah Palin’s horribly off key comment at her party’s convention last August that “the world isn’t a community and it doesn’t need an organizer,” these Republicans demonstrated just how out of touch they are with Millennial thinking.
Meanwhile, President Obama’s signature initiative is drawing Millennials ever closer to his political agenda. Chris Golden and Nick Troiano, Millennial co-founders of myImpact.org plan on launching a social network designed to connect volunteers and their experiences to others with similar interests as soon as the legislation creates a market for such sharing and support. Two Millennials who served a term in the New Hampshire legislature as they began their college careers, Andrew Edwards and Jeff Fontas, are now anxious to play “a central role in getting a ‘Spirit of Service’ off the ground” as their next step in a career of civic involvement. These are just two examples of Millennials deep desire to serve.
Already the shift toward civic involvement by this new generation, in contrast to its Generation X predecessors, has doubled the proportion of 16-24 year olds serving in the nation’s existing volunteer corps. Ninety-four percent of Millennials believes community service is an effective way to solve problems at the local level and 85 percent thinks that is true for national problems as well. CIRCLE, an organization devoted to tracking the interests of Millennials in serving their country, points out that the second most important factor, other than having time, “in deciding whether or not to get involved in an activity is the impact that they [Millennials] think it will yield.” With the elevated profile such activities will enjoy under provisions of the GIVE Act, it is not too difficult to imagine Millennials taking up over 80,000 of the 250,000 volunteer slots that will be made available under GIVE’s provisions -- greater than the number of all Americans currently serving their country’s communities.
At the signing ceremony, the President will be joined by many other equally committed sponsors of the concept of national service, including Senator Ted Kennedy in honor of whom the final legislation was named "The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act,” to celebrate the country’s embrace of this new ethos of service. While Millennials across the country join with them to celebrate this historic change in America’s behavior, Republicans will be left, once again, locked in the dogmas of their past, unable to imagine a country where government encourages private initiative and the nation is far better off for it.
Cross-posted at the NDN blog.