The Corporation for National and Community Service’s budget has been cut by $100 million; some in Congress want to eliminate it altogether. Plans to expand the number of AmeriCorps volunteers to 140,000 by 2012 evaporated; the service corps launched in the Clinton era now has just about 82,500 slots, even though more than a half million applied last year.
“People pushing for national service to expand thought that this was going to be a golden era,” said Suzanne Perry, senior editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “But now they’re resigned to just fighting to ensure that national service isn’t totally eviscerated. . . . Instead of gearing up for the big expansion, they’re basically just trying to preserve what’s there and make sure there aren’t any future cuts.”
Meanwhile, the nation’s civic health suffered a bit of malaise, too. Volunteers are at a five-year high — about 64 million at last tally — but that is still below the 65 million who volunteered in 2005, ranks that swelled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Americans donated nearly $300 billion to charity last year, a number that has also grown but not returned to pre-recession highs, according to Giving USA, the annual report on charitable giving by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Average citizens who volunteered in the Washington area Saturday said they appreciated the Obamas’ commitment to service but had mixed feelings on whether the energy around volunteerism sparked by the youthful president in 2008 and 2009 endured.
About 30 volunteers folded clothes and sorted donated furniture at a Mission of Love Charities warehouse in Capitol Heights as a rehearsing church choir serenaded them.
Sharon Billings, 61, of Hyattsville, who lost her job as a legislative aide but continues to volunteer with her church, praised Obama. “Someone in his position, even though it’s a photo op or whatever, he shows it’s not beneath him to do,” Billings said of Obama’s Saturday trip to the elementary school. But she worried that some may still be apathetic.
“The younger generation wants to do nothing. We African Americans are creating a generation of elitism, we give our kids everything,” Billings said. “They’re not inspired unless they’re actually connected to something specific, like a church.”
Douglas Edwards, the Mission of Love founder, said that while many of those he knows are proud of Obama, he believes the president hasn’t boosted a culture of service in the past four years. He put blame on other politicians who block the president’s agenda and said he believes that the poor are still neglected by many elected officials, including the president. “He couldn’t accomplish anything on that even if he wanted to, too much obstruction from the right. It’s heartless,” he said.
That said, “no president has taken on the agenda of poor people” since Richard Nixon, he said.
Biden, his wife, Jill, and other members of his family joined a crowd at the D.C. Armory, where 10,000 volunteers boxed supplies for troops overseas, veterans and first responders. Biden packed cotton swabs at the event, which was co-sponsored by the George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation.
A little ways away, Michael Ongele, 21, a senior from Howard University who grew up in Prince George’s County, sat at a table, writing a letter to a soldier that would be tucked into one of the care packages.
Ongele said he had often volunteered but never on a day of service. It would have been hard to “sit in your dorm room” this time, he said, because students had been inundated with Facebook messages about the event and posters around campus.
“In the last four years, he’s made a lot of progress,” Ongele said of the president. “The dream has been fulfilled. But there is a lot more work to do. Everybody wants Obama to do this or do that, but we have responsibilities as well. So I’m satisfied — but not complacent.”
Nick Anderson, Michelle Boorstein, Caitlin Gibson, Hamil R. Harris, Nikita Stewart and pool and wire services contributed to this report.