Liberals: Wrong on Community Service Mandate for Long-Term Jobless

Requiring the unemployed to volunteer can benefit everyone.



The day before Congress sent tens of thousands of U.S. government workers into a state of involuntary joblessness, conservatives in the United Kingdom unveiled a plan to put thousands of unemployed Britons involuntarily back to work.

In a speech Monday at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Tory MP George Osborne revealed his party’s new “Help to Work” scheme, which would require people who’ve been receiving jobless benefits for at least two years and are able to work to conduct 30 hours a week of community service or visit a job center every day.

As Osborne sees it:

“They will do useful work putting something back into their community. Making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity… And for those with underlying problems, like drug addiction and illiteracy, there will be an intensive regime of support. No one will be ignored or left without help. But no one will get something for nothing.”

Similar proposals have been introduced in the U.S. Last year Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and more than a dozen Republican co-sponsors introduced a bill – the Unemployment Benefits Reform Act of 2012 – that would have required individuals who have been unemployed for six months or more to complete 20 hours of public service  a week to receive federal extended unemployment benefits. Another bill, considered last year by the Georgia legislature, would have required beneficiaries in that state to start volunteering within two weeks of eligibility.  And in 2011 a member of the Florida House unveiled a plan to make people who receive state unemployment benefits spend at least four hours a week giving back to the community.

None of these proposals took root, and requiring unemployment beneficiaries to do community service remains a controversial topic here, largely divided along partisan lines.

Last September, Philly mag’s Victor Fiorillo conducted an informal poll of unemployed Philadelphians and found that, if done right, many would be amenable to a community-service mandate. But labor advocates–who tend to equate these kinds of schemes with legitimately bad policies, like mandatory drug testing for beneficiaries–say they unfairly demonize the unemployed for being in a situation beyond their control.

Osborne’s proposal was abruptly attacked by critics as being “stupid and cruel.” And based on how he’s selling it, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the stance that a sweeping new program is required to prevent jobless citizens from getting “something for nothing” pegs millions of people as shiftless loafers who are content to sit back and milk the dole.  Unfortunately, by reflexively playing into this narrative, opponents of the program may be missing an opportunity to explore its merits and work to make it better.

While I certainly have issues with specific components of both the British and U.S. proposals–mostly involving when community service mandates should kick in and how many hours of volunteer work should be required–giving people a productive outlet to do good in exchange for a social benefit is not exactly a radical concept.  More importantly, if it’s done properly, a few hours of mandatory community service would be as beneficial to the long-term unemployed as it is to the communities they would be required to serve.

Data shows overwhelmingly that unemployment leads to depression, and it’s not all tied to the loss of a paycheck. Work–particularly the kind that makes a positive impact in the lives of people–offers a sense of personal worth that is integral to mental health; and maintaining a routine, even one that only requires you to be somewhere a few times a week, is inherently humanizing.

People who are unemployed for long stretches often lose the sense of identity and value that comes with feeling needed, and they show higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide as a result.

What’s more, researchers have drawn a correlation between high levels of volunteerism and employability. Put simply, spending time feeding the homeless, visiting the elderly or even cleaning up a public park makes people more likely to get a job down the line.

A 2011 report by the National Conference on Citizenship found that participation in civil society can develop skills, confidence and habits that make individuals employable and strengthen the networks that help them find jobs. Volunteer work provides opportunities for face-to-face interaction that can be more fruitful than pumping resume after resume to faceless HR reps. The study also found that states with higher levels of civic engagement are more resilient in an economic downturn, and identified five measures of civic engagement–including volunteering–that appear to protect against unemployment and contribute to overall economic resilience.

Ironically, despite all these positive benefits, government data shows that unemployed people actually volunteer at a lower rate than the national average. In my view, asking people who have been collecting unemployment for, say, a year or more to spend 10 hours a week expanding their social capital while helping someone in need is a win-win.

When it comes to social benefits, conservatives are responsible for an uncountable number of bad policy positions. At least in theory, I simply don’t see this as one of them.