Interview With A Wonk; the Youth of Today
The Service Nation folks provided me with a list of people I could request to interview as a blogger. I guess Governor Paterson was not available, because he was busy, because he never heard of me, or because he has heard of me. No matter. I spoke with one of my own kind instead, Dr. Robert Grimm, the Director of Research and Public Policy for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the organization that produces this report. I asked three questions. Is there a problem of declining civic engagement in the United States? Why is the level of voluntary service so low in the New York Metro area? And did some generations let American down in this (and other regards), according to the statistics?
Grimm told me volunteering rose after 9/11, but subsequently fell. That might explain why those who sponsored the summit feel a need to do something, and why everyone there kept wistfully invoking the spirit of 9/11, including the two candidates. According to Senator McCain “obviously we needed to, at that time, take advantage of the unity in the United States of America. We weren't Republicans on September 11th. We weren't Democrats. We were Americans… We did do a lot of things right after 9/11. But it gradually eroded.” One of the key factors in declining volunteerism is a high dropout rate among volunteers, according to the data. People try to become engaged, but don’t have a good experience and don’t stick with it. One in three who volunteer in one year do not in the next year.
There are several factors behind New York’s low rate of voluntary service, according to Grimm. First, homeownership means people are more likely to feel anchored to their community, and that makes the more likely to volunteer, and New York’s homeownership rate is low. Educated people are more likely to volunteer, and educational attainment in the New York area is below average, with a high proportion of uneducated people outweighing the high proportion of highly educated people. And long commutes take people out of their communities, making them less likely to get involved. There is also less need to volunteer for some things in New York. With extensive services within walking distance and extensive mass transit, there is less need to provide rides to those who cannot drive than in rural Nebraska. When I asked if the relatively high taxes in the region convinced some people that someone ought to be paid to do what volunteers do elsewhere, he said his organization hadn’t analyzed that. But a big factor in low volunteerism in New York, according to the data, is a higher dropout rate, with fewer sticking with it than average.
With all the talk of the need to “reclaim the American we love,” in the words of the Service Nation founder, I asked if there was a sense that some generations had dropped the ball. There is a lifecycle of voluntary service according to the data, with hours spent rising as people move into adulthood, falling in middle age as career and parent responsibilities peak, rising again in the early senior years, and falling as people become very old. What I asked was whether certain generations showed different behavior, implying different values, at the same point in their lifecycles. Grimm said there is evidence that the current generation of young people is more socially engaged and likely to serve than the one before it was at a similar age, although the effect is obscured by the ongoing expansion of youthful irresponsibility through the 20s and into the early 30s. As long as volunteerism rises when maturing eventually occurs, he said, that’s OK.
And in fact there was much talk during the summit of the rise of a new generation with more generous and responsible values, combined with the hope that the large baby boom population will ramp up voluntary service in its early senior years. The Millennial generation, it seems to be hoped, will make up for the sins of their predecessors and turn things around, and this time the renewed sense of national purpose will not sputter out. And just so they know what they need to do, college presidents were on hand to announce mandatory public service, scholarships for public service, grants for public service, semesters of public service, loan forgiveness for public service, etc.
Some time after all this was being announced, however, I heard the most upsetting statistic I have heard in a long time. Lt General Benjamin C. Freakley of the U.S. army, a key man in military recruitment, said that 70% of today’s American youths are not eligible for military service due to their level of education, their health (mostly soaring childhood obesity), substance abuse record, and/or a criminal record. The military, he said, is worried about what will become of that 70%, and the country. After all, the military is not Harvard; it has a history of getting the most out of people with varying levels of ability. It is not the U.S. Olympic squad. If you are in any shape at all, it has basic training to do the rest. And it is not a monastery, and has strict discipline for those who need it. If they can’t get something out of you, you’re in big trouble.
So there you have the youth of today. They are starting out bankrupt in a bankrupt country. That’s what I was worried about before. In addition, a majority are stupid, fat, sick, addicted or criminals. But others are more socially engaged as citizens, and as Grimm pointed out, those who are socially engaged as citizens, statistically, are far more active and healthy. I had heard that all the social indicators – from teenage pregnancy to drug use to high school graduation rates – had improved compared with 30 years ago when I was in high school, so the 70% figure came as something of a shock. It sounds like the uneven distribution of income and institutional collapses are just part of the problem. We have a personal collapse as well.
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