How much good are volunteers doing in the fight against poverty? How much good can they do? These are the all-important questions posed by Sara Mosle in a New York Times Magazine article titled “The Vanity of Volunteerism.”
Mosle is a free-lance writer and former school teacher who tells the story of her six-year-long mentoring relationship with about a dozen black and Hispanic kids whom she befriended while teaching 3rd grade in Manhattan. Using her own personal experiences (but also paying some attention to the broader national data), Mosle concludes that she’s “volunteered enough to know volunteering isn’t enough.”
Mosle’s argument needs to be taken seriously by all who believe that voluntary personal interactions with the poor can do much to reduce poverty. She argues persuasively that it can’t do nearly as much as is sometimes hoped.
Why not? Her most convincing argument is quantitative: there simply aren’t enough volunteers to do the job. Although 55 percent of Americans reported that they volunteered at some point in 1998, how much volunteering did they actually do? Too little: surprisingly, Americans actually donated 400 million fewer hours of their time than they did in 1995. Overall, the increasing number of hours that many Americans spend on the job (and the rise of the two-income family) seems to be reducing the time available for volunteering.
Furthermore, by no means all volunteering benefits the poor; as Mosle points out, the Metropolitan Opera is also a beneficiary of volunteering. And not nearly enough volunteers work with poor children in particular. Thus the New York chapter of Big Brothers/Big Sisters recruits only 600 new mentors each year, this in a city with more than a million schoolchildren. Nationally, the program reports a waiting list of 50,000 kids.
That’s the problem that Mosle lays out, distressingly but also plausibly. But her solution—a return to big government—simply isn’t persuasive. First, Mosle’s argument rests on the false premise that government welfare spending has actually been cut, so that she and other volunteers must now serve as “a substitute for the social safety net.” In fact, welfare expenditures continue to rise: in constant 1999 dollars, they stood at $379 billion in 1995 (the year before welfare reform was enacted), and rose by some 13.5 percent—to $430 billion—in 1999. In particular, there is no evidence that welfare reform has increased poverty among children: when means-tested government benefits are counted as income, the child poverty rate currently stands at 13.1 percent, the lowest level since 1979.
The more important objection, though, relates to the outmoded way in which Mosle conceives of poverty—as material insufficiency, which government could solve by transferring income to the poor. If the problem is defined as the need for “better housing, less crowded schools, access to affordable health care,” perhaps government could be the solution. (Government can certainly make schools less crowded, though it clearly hasn’t a clue as to how to make schools do a better job teaching kids.)
In fact, poverty is no longer a matter of material insufficiencies such as lack of food and adequate housing. As economist Robert Fogel notes, necessities like food, clothing, and housing are now so inexpensive (when measured by the number of hours of work needed to procure them) that “even the poor are materially rich by the standards prevailing a century ago.”
Instead, Fogel demonstrates, poverty today consists primarily in a maldistribution of spiritual rather than material resources, with chronic poverty most often the result of defects in family ethic, work ethic, and sense of discipline. And there is little reason to believe that any government program can remedy these defects.
So if government can’t solve the problem, and there aren’t enough volunteers to solve the problem, what—if anything—can solve the problem? The reference to the family ethic offers an important clue.
Mosle herself notes that “a lot of what passes for volunteering used to be called simply ‘parenting.’” And it’s striking that much of what she did with her kids (taking them on trips to amusement parks, movies, museums, etc.) could and ideally should have been done by the kids’ parents. Mosle says little about the kids’ parents in her article, but what little she does say is not exactly reassuring. One family splits up after the father loses his job as a butcher (a puzzling reaction, given the existence of unemployment compensation); a second father is said to be a drug addict (though also a caring parent); a third father is a burglar.
Mosle concludes by declaring that “the best way to help kids. . . is not to recruit strangers [that is, volunteers] to take the place of parents, but to help those—their families and teachers—who are already in the best position to help them.” She clearly has government help in mind here. No doubt it is true that government could do more to help parents. But it’s also true that government can do little to help families when parents engage in behavior that is self-destructive and destructive to their families. That is an important if melancholy truth that Mosle nowhere addresses.
To suggest that poverty could most effectively be reduced by better parenting may not seem like a very practical strategy—and at least in the abstract, it’s not. Volunteers can’t replace parents, and government can’t replace parents. But for whatever it’s worth, my guess is that an army of committed volunteers working with families could do more to improve parenting than any government program.
Joel Schwartz is a contributing editor to Philanthropy and author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000.