A War on Community Service

By Noah Zatz
Saturday, April 12, 2008

One of the latest victims of the Bush administration's continuing assault on ordinary language is the term "community service." You might have thought that community service was about serving others, but apparently what it's really about is serving oneself.

That's the message from the Department of Health and Human Services, delivered in new regulations governing work requirements in a program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. TANF provides cash and services to families that are temporarily unable to make ends meet.

The work requirements of the program were sold to the public as a "social contract" when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress created TANF. The community supports people in their hour of need and people receiving assistance give back to the community. That's why Congress wrote "community service" into the law as one way to satisfy work requirements.

But that high-minded talk about "reciprocity" has gone out the window. According to the new regulations, community service is just another job-training program. Traditional forms of community service -- including many of those that are most beneficial to people in need -- don't count anymore, unless they are "designed to improve the employability" of those performing the services. But enhancing our own job skills is not the primary purpose of ladling soup for the hungry, beautifying our public lands, consoling the sick, bringing joy to the elderly and mentoring the young. Serving others is.

The administration's interpretation not only mocks the spirit of public service but also mangles the law. The statute has other provisions for training and work experience. The regulations render the separate inclusion of "community service" superfluous.

The deeper question here is why families struggle economically. The administration's approach assumes away the possibility that hardworking, capable people might temporarily lack full-time employment because of a recession, a plant closing, a natural disaster or job discrimination, or because a family member has a serious illness or disability and needs care. Without debating the causes of poverty overall, the question is simply whether "get a job" or "get more skills" is always the answer for everyone. For this administration, the person is the problem every time.

The states, which administer TANF, know that real life is more complicated than this morality tale. Before the new regulations took effect, diverse states, including Georgia, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin, took a more flexible approach. They sometimes allowed TANF recipients to give back to the community regardless of whether they were paid by an employer or were trained for a new job. That makes perfect sense for people whose skills are adequate but who simply need temporary support while they are looking for jobs, recovering their health or getting their families through crises. In such cases, community service easily fulfills the reciprocity principle.

Many states recognized that one way adults can serve the community is by providing care to its most vulnerable members. They counted as community service caregiving by foster parents or others who step in when a child's parents are dead or absent, as well as care for seriously ill or disabled parents, siblings or children. When family members do not provide this care, the government often hires home health aides or child-care providers through Medicare, Medicaid or child-care assistance programs. For this reason, there is no sharp division between caregiving and work experience.

In response to such points made in public comments, the administration shrank even further from an ethic of reciprocity. Caring for the vulnerable, it explained, "does not provide a direct benefit to the community." Why not? President Bush himself once said that caregivers "bring our families and communities together" and build "a culture of service, responsibility and compassion." Most people would consider it community service when someone mentors a child through a Big Brother-Big Sister program or delivers food to a homebound adult through Meals on Wheels. When the community takes responsibility for ensuring that care is provided, the community is served by those who provide it.

The administration seems to be insisting that nothing done within one's household could possibly count as work. That attitude reeks of sexism. Moreover, it becomes downright nonsensical when the government will pay a home health aide to care for someone but sees no benefit to the community when that person's child, sibling or parent provides the care instead.

At bottom, the administration repudiates the ethic of community service. Its view of the world is simple: You and your family are on your own and should focus on yourselves. So much for mutual responsibility.

The writer is a legal scholar who has written extensively on welfare work requirements. He teaches at UCLA and the University of Chicago.

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