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Public service is a boon to all Americans — and sends the right message to our youth

Colette Hyman

In his inauguration speech, John F. Kennedy famously urged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” A Trumpian version of this invocation might be: Ask not what you can do for your country — ask how you can exploit your country for your own benefit. Yes, President Donald Trump's budget would eliminate all support, encouragement, and incentive to work for anyone’s benefit but your own. He wants to zero out budgets for AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and VISTA, as well as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program for graduates who choose to work as, teachers, nurses, and social workers, to name a just few paths that benefit all of our communities.

Since Franklin Roosevelt turned to public service programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps to help the U.S. rebound from the Great Depression, presidents of both parties have promoted service programs as avenues for developing skills and creating jobs. Along the way, Americans have learned invaluable lessons and skills working in communities wracked by poverty, homelessness, and natural disasters. George H.W. Bush called on Americans to become “Points of Light” by serving their communities, paving the way for the establishment of AmeriCorps under President Bill Clinton. After Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush created the USA Freedom Corps to connect Americans with more opportunities to serve their country and to foster a culture of citizenship, responsibility, and service.” And he supported his call with the largest investment ever in public service.

Help with education debt

These presidents also recognized that Americans needed assistance in paying off education debt if they were to respond to such calls to serve their communities. They understood and valued the importance of public service for our nation, and funded programs that have proven very popular.

Thanks to these leaders and the programs they established and funded, AmeriCorps volunteers in Rochester and the Twin Cities are helping children to read through Reading Partners, and AmeriCorps volunteers are partnering with the Duluth YMCA to serve as mentors and tutors of at-risk school children. This summer, AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteers are learning valuable construction skills while working with Habitat for Humanity on building and repairing homes in Winona and Fillmore counties in southeastern Minnesota. And in 2016, across Minnesota, more than 655 Senior Corps volunteers working through Lutheran Social Services served as foster grandparents, and volunteered as Senior Companions, helping elderly Minnesotans with daily living tasks, and enabling them to continue to stay in their own homes.

Mutual benefit

How many other schools, public libraries, community centers, and nonprofit organizations are able to expand the services that they provide to students, the elderly, the disabled, the homeless because of the women and men in AmeriCorps/VISTA, and Senior Corps positions? These volunteers receive a modest stipend for their work, and many also receive assistance paying for college so they can further develop the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in our ever-changing labor market.

How many of our educators and health care providers are working in our rural communities because part of their student loans is being forgiven? How many are working in underserved neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul because they have agreed to serve these communities in exchange for reducing college loan payments?

All these different service programs encourage young and not-so-young Americans to contribute their skills and their passion to those in their communities who, by reason of their age, their physical and cognitive abilities, their income, or other life circumstances, need some extra assistance. In the collective spirit of JFK, GHWB, BC, and GWB, volunteers work for their entire communities, for the benefit of all of us, as do the men and women who receive educational loan assistance as part of their compensation for choosing a career working for the public. They all deserve our gratitude and our support.

The wrong message to youth

Eliminating support for service programs and loan forgiveness programs would certainly shrink assistance for vulnerable members of our communities. But it would also shrink the outlook and the imagination of our citizenry. It would send a very clear message to young people with talents and energy: Forget about working to better your community; forget about working for the public good. It’s all about your private individual self-interest; you’re on your own as are all those with less than you; it is all about you, private individual.

Are these the lessons we want to pass on to the next generation of citizens and leaders?

There is no telling when the Republican-controlled Congress will take up its responsibility of developing and passing a realistic, honorable, and broad-minded budget. But it is never too soon to let your representative and senators know how you feel about Trump’s mean-spirited budget proposal and vision for our nation.

Colette A. Hyman teaches U.S. history at Winona State University.

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