On Thursday, the Senate came to an agreement on an issue which had become unnecessarily partisan in the past four years: the state of American public service. I don’t know whether this signals a change in bipartisan communication in the Senate as a result of the Obama Administration’s motions towards including the Republican minority or more concrete evidence that the late economic unpleasantness is finally getting Democrats and Republicans to have a concerted dialogue. Public, or civil, service is the great benefit of civilization: it’s why we create national identity, live in cities, and why people on one side of the country consider those on the other part of the same tribe; we support the civilization because it supports us.
The most important benefactor of this new bill is Americorps, which is a kind of like the Peace Corp, but for America. President Bill Clinton created Americorps in 1993 (John McCain, in an effort to uphold his party’s values, voted against it) and it has struggled ever since then to become what it was intended to be. There are many audacious reversals of logic in our country: we are the richest, most educated, most powerful country in the world yet we have a staggering number of working poor, obese yet often malnourished citizens, thousands of homeless, and a literacy rate that falls behind Cuba, Australia, and England. Critics of the new bill (The Washington Examiner brings up some good points: the bill carries questionable caveats of mandatory service) are right to investigate the truth behind the elation, yet one thing is certain: this bill was passed just in time. This is one of the few—hopefully not the last—preventative measures already taken by the new administration towards governing; they are clearly anticipating our country needed $5.7 billion dollars in domestic aid in the next five years. After eight years of a cure-based approach (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”) towards our country’s issues, we are finally getting what we have needed all along.
About seven months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast in 2005, I flew down to New Orleans to lay hands on the issue myself. I was shocked at how decimated the city was and by how little had changed in over half a year. Descending from the air at night, one could see in the moonlight the darkened shapes of silent neighborhoods, and in downtown the office buildings cut dark blanks out of the night sky. There were many different aid organizations there, most of them impromptu groups who had started months ago in other places along the Coast but, after mobilizing to New Orleans and surveying the damage, decided to stay longer than planned. For about one week I lived in a tent in a reeking field (it, like most of the Lower Ninth Ward, had been covered in sewage, oil spills, and toxic chemicals) and worked with Emergency Communities cooking meals, gutting houses, and listening to people’s stories. There was only one government-sponsored outfit there, Americorps, and they were by far the most hard-working and the least funded. Most of the Americorps volunteers were young men and women who had joined in order to pay for college, get assistance with debt, and help their country. Even after they worked tirelessly along the Gulf Coast, Americorps funding was cut and then the whole outfit was threatened to be disbanded altogether.
Our national dis-ability to accurately respond to the disaster in New Orleans, Plackerman’s Parrish, Waveland, Mississippi, and many other communities was on a basic level a simple lack of people. When I was in New Orleans and saw how little was able to be done I suddenly had a terrible thought: what if such a disaster struck in two major areas at once? There simply is not the infrastructure to meet the needs of both possible immediate disasters and slower, more complicated ones like a shrinking economy, mushrooming homelessness, and whole neighborhoods abandoned and crumbling. We participate in a civilization both out of convenience and out of necessity, yet truly great civilizations concern themselves with their obligation to the people without whom the civilization would be nothing but an empty idea.