The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Volunteering and generosity are no substitutes for government programs

Conservatives have weaponized Americans’ desire to help to attack the social safety net

Volunteer registered nurses from New Mexico give people coronavirus vaccines at a rural vaccination site in Columbus, N.M., on Friday. (Paul Ratje/Reuters)

This is National Volunteer Week, which Americans have observed annually since 1974. Volunteering has been especially urgent during the coronavirus pandemic. People built mutual aid societies, pitched in at vaccination clinics and cared for neighbors enduring everything from heartbreak to economic pain. But as we honor these selfless acts, we should also recall National Volunteering Week’s dark origins story, when president Richard Nixon distorted benevolence to serve the least generous of goals. This history makes it clear that volunteering cannot stand in for government provided support.

America has long been a nation of joiners and helpers. Volunteering took on new meaning and significance in the 1960s, when Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson championed the practice and turned unpaid social uplift into government-funded jobs.

Kennedy’s Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) defined volunteering as a civic feat. “On your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete,” Kennedy said. His successor, Johnson, spearheaded the War on Poverty, which created an expansive network of community service agencies that assisted and were often staffed by working-class people. In those same years, social justice movements attacked the elitist underpinnings of the nation’s welfare state, exposing new possibilities for work and citizenship. The Black Power movement pursued community control of local institutions including the police and schools.

Nixon, a Republican, set out to change the conversation about what the government owed to citizens when he became president in 1969. In particular, he sought to shrink Aid to Families With Dependent Children (often called simply “welfare”), the program that paid modest sums to low-income families. He also wanted to fulfill his campaign promise to be a president of “law and order” by redirecting War on Poverty funds into expanding incarceration and more aggressive policing in urban communities of color.

To lay the groundwork for these changes, Nixon took up his predecessors’ focus on volunteerism, and warped it. Many Americans needed assistance, Nixon claimed, but their generous fellow citizens could meet those needs. Volunteer programs should replace government-funded and run services. “People can reach where government cannot; can do what government cannot,” he said.

Nixon outlined an ambitious vision in which teens tutored youths; business leaders mentored aspiring entrepreneurs; housewives cooked for elderly neighbors, and those elderly served as foster grandparents. Most anyone could be recruited to aid another person free.

Nixon issued Executive Order 11470, which established the National Program for Voluntary Action in 1969. The program sought to aid existing groups that relied upon volunteers and launched federal initiatives to encourage the practice. Nixon also created National Volunteer Week and the National Center for Voluntary Action, a nonprofit agency whose slogan, “what you need, money can’t buy,” defined volunteering as valuable but also priceless. Every aspect of this campaign highlighted the helper’s generosity and downplayed the rights of the person being helped.

As Nixon honed this strategy, feminists noted he targeted tasks like cooking, mentoring and care work, which were things women often handled at home, as volunteers or in low-wage jobs. They insisted women performing these labors should be paid a fair wage. Volunteer labor should be “a supplement to, and in no way a substitute for, adequate Federal and other public funds and programs,” Chicago Welfare Council leader Carol Bergan warned Nixon’s advisers. National Organization for Women president Wilma Scott Heide agreed. “We are not fooled by those who try to co-opt people to volunteer for human services, social services, health and social research,” she said. “This nation pays for those things we truly value.”

But Nixon’s crusade gained momentum as it dovetailed with a rising conservatism. President Ronald Reagan wrapped the gauzy language of volunteers’ goodwill around the Republican mantras of personal responsibility and the sanctity of the private sphere to justify slashing social programs in the early 1980s.

Even as Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush claimed to offer a softer conservatism, he used the same playbook. “I don’t hate government,” he said in accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, but the nation’s “varied, voluntary and unique” groups that were “like a thousand points of light” could do much of its work. Rather than helping people directly, the government should “rais[e] the people’s awareness” about how to give their money and time to others, a Bush adviser explained.

This praise for volunteerism helped erode the notion that basic sustenance was a right — something for which Americans shouldn’t have to rely upon the vagaries of charity. These decades of attacks on this principle succeeded so fully that appeals to personal benevolence could be detached from them. Even Democrats sensed these ideas’ political traction and joined in, as when President Bill Clinton decried “big government” in gutting welfare in 1996. Borrowing from his Republican predecessors, Clinton had created a new volunteer organization, AmeriCorps, to encourage community service and “tackle problems like putting welfare recipients to work.” Such volunteerism efforts were inadequate to meet people’s growing needs. Instead, welfare reform deepened poverty.

The pandemic has laid bare the bankruptcy of conservatives’ volunteering strategy and the damage it left behind. When covid-19 arrived, state and federal officials acted, with Congress passing the $2.2 trillion Cares Act. But one piece of legislation, no matter how big, could not undo decades of cuts that left the safety net ill-equipped to handle a major catastrophe.

The basic social contract was so weakened that there were delays in distributing checks, institutional settings such as nursing homes were largely abandoned, many states were overwhelmed with unemployment claims and time limits on social spending pulled people back to work, fueling several spikes of infection. Conservative Americans’ sense that the government owes them nothing contributed to their resistance to masking and vaccination, which has extended the pandemic.

Inspiring voluntary efforts have addressed these needs, with neighbors helping each other, but volunteers could never have bridged the chasms between what people had and what they required to weather the disaster.

We need a reckoning about the government’s role in delivering personal security to everyone — as an essential right, not as the output of another person’s goodwill. Our year struggling with the coronavirus has revealed that for all Republicans have touted volunteerism as a replacement for entitlements for the least fortunate, personal generosity simply is no substitute for a social safety net.