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U.S. Volunteerism

Volunteerism And The Rise And Fall Of The Welfare State

As the World War II ended, American policymakers began to take the full measure of the domestic and international responsibilities the nation had taken on as leader of the free world. International leadership would require the development of capacities to manage the domestic economy, to maintain internal political stability, and to sustain military preparedness. This would require a vast expansion of government.

The realities of the U.S. federal system, with its divided and subordinated responsibilities, combined with continuing popular distrust of big government prevented the creation of a European-style centralized bureaucratic state. The American welfare/warfare state, as it emerged, concentrated revenue gathering and policy powers in the national government while allocating most of the tasks of implementing national policies to states, localities, and private sector actors (Webber and Wildavsky, 1986; Donahue, 1989).

Tax policy became one of the most important instruments of the welfare state. The universalization of income taxation and steeply progressive individual and corporate taxes provided a powerful tool for influencing the activities of citizens and citizen organizations. Although the federal government used grants and contracts to influence private sector activity, the deductibility of donations and bequests and exemption from corporate income and other forms of taxation became effective ways of encouraging transfers of funds between private sector actors. Implementing this system required a revolution in the tax treatment of charitable enterprises. Between 1947 and 1954, Congress rewrote the tax code, creating powerful incentives for charitable, educational, and religious organizations to incorporate and seek certification of charitable status from the federal government.

Depriving many voluntary membership organizations of tax exemptions that they had historically enjoyed, in combination with the establishment of federal social insurance programs, eliminated the raison d'etre for the mutual benefit organizations that comprised the majority of secular voluntary associations in the United States. By the 1960s, traditional voluntary membership associations were dying out and, as Robert Putnam has noted, volunteerism of every sort was declining (Putnam, 2000; Skocpol, 2003).

The place of voluntary membership associations was being taken by charitable tax-exempt "nonprofit organizations" that were increasingly likely to be run by professional managers and funded by a mix of donations, commercial revenues, and foundation and government grants and contracts. Though volunteers still played a role in the nonprofit sector, they were increasingly likely to be involved with start-up organizations (which, if successful, quickly became professionalized) and religious bodies. There were exceptions to this pattern: religious organizations continued to command nearly two-thirds of the volunteer labor in the nonprofit sector; self-help groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, explicitly rejected professionalism and depended entirely on the voluntary support of their members (Wuthnow, 1994); character building organizations like the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts also continued to depend almost entirely on volunteers.

The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a revival of public volunteerism. The Peace Corps, established in the early 1960s, sent American volunteers to developing countries. During the War on Poverty of the late 1960s, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) drew volunteers to impoverished urban and rural areas within the United States. The conservative revolution, which began in earnest with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, advocated voluntary community efforts as a substitute for big government programs that, conservatives argued, perpetuated a culture of poverty. Some of these efforts, like Americorps, were government-sponsored. Others, like Habitat for Humanity, enlisted private citizens to help address public problems, such as poor housing. Colleges and universities became enthusiastic promoters of student voluntarism and community service as forms of experiential learning.

Dismantling big government through devolution (shifting burdens from the national government to states and localities) and privatization (shifting government responsibilities to private sector actors) was the central project of the conservative revolution. George H. W. Bush's speeches following his nomination as Republican candidate for the presidency in 1988 were not only high-profile official endorsements of volunteerism, but also suggested a peculiar blurring of public and private conceptions of volunteerism at the end of the twentieth century. In his 1989 inaugural speech, the president declared

I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.

At the end of the twentieth century, the traditions of public and private volunteerism that had diverged two centuries earlier were evidently converging as institutions—government, business, and universities—promoted volunteering as ways of fulfilling their responsibilities to the public. Such institutionally sponsored efforts—which often contain coercive elements (such as being requisites for graduation or promotion)—raise questions about the voluntariness of contemporary volunteerism.


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Peter Dobkin Hall

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismU.S. Volunteerism - Volunteerism In Colonial America, Volunteerism In The Early Republic, Volunteerism During And After The Civil War