Americans will be expected to contribute 50 hours of volunteer work per year under a community service program that begins today.
The National American Service Initiative is designed to engage Americans in their local communities through service projects focusing on health care, education, and other issues.
“This is about giving back and helping out,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., on the launch of the program.
NASI became law last year as part of President Obama’s domestic agenda. The program easily passed Congress to much fanfare by community activist groups.
The volunteer requirement joins a long list of common civic duties such as voting, jury duty, and paying taxes. But its proponents emphasize that the program isn’t solely private charitable work or public service.
“It isn’t one or the other; we’re seeking a third way,” said NASI Chairman Theo D. Reich. “This goes beyond soup kitchen volunteering and National Guard tours. This is direct work on behalf of the government.”
NASI volunteers will be assigned to various federal government programs and offices, from the Department of Education to the Environmental Protection Agency. Their task will be to help manage day-to-day activities as they meet their 50-hour quota.
In an effort to publicize the program among youth, numerous so-called “service parties” will be hosted in major cities where high school and college students can sign up. “We hope to have a NASI party in every state within the next year,” said Reich. The recruitment effort hopes to sign up as many as 250,000 young adults in that time.
Upon reaching age 18, every American will be required to serve 50 hours per year, which averages out to between four and five hours a month. A Web site will provide recommended monthly schedules to help workers keep track of their time, as well as a calculator to help plan around other time commitments like work or school.
“The great thing about this program is that it’s up to you how you want to plan your volunteer time; there’s no set way to do it,” Reich said. “As long as you meet your obligation, you’re free to meet it any way you choose.”
Penalties are assigned for each missed hour, including additional taxes and a reduction of tax refunds, loss of work and driving privileges, and lost health care benefits under the federal law passed last year.
“We’re simply asking every American to give back; but for those who don’t participate, there must be accountability,” said Reich. “Everyone needs to give their fair share.”
NASI volunteers will be given special tan-colored uniforms to help them stand out from other federal workers. There are also slogans, rallies, and songs in development for the NASI program. Some examples are: “Life is Hard; Helping Out is Easy” and “Join Us Now to Help Them Later,” which features images of poverty-stricken children and workers constructing new houses.
To encourage compliance, officials will be working to make national service appealing. Contests will be held and awards handed out to those who finish their hours early. Recognition ceremonies will also honor those who go beyond the 50-hour requirement and contribute additional time.
Reich said the NASI program will also apply social pressure to those who are behind in their requirement. “Sometimes it’s not enough to apply financial penalties, but social ostracism often does the trick,” he said.
Officials are not yet sure which form this ostracism would take, but are toying with several different ideas. One is to create an armband to be handed out to volunteers who are meeting their quotas. It is hoped that the armbands would be a symbol of pride and act as an incentive for others.