Injustice! Look Up 'Volunteer' in Webster's

A Well-intentioned Politician

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.
U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. | Source

A Modern Public Housing Project

My dictionary defines a volunteer as one who "offers himself for a service of his own free will."

Congress, despite this, may be about to adopt a new form of Orwellian doublespeak by forcing certain occupants of public housing to volunteer to perform community service for as many as eight hours a month.

Convicted criminals are often ordered to perform community service in lieu of jail time. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that -- I'm not so sure -- but imposing the same sentence on residents of public housing is a travesty.

Congressional Oxymoron

Worse, under proposed federal legislation, public housing tenants would face eviction from their homes if they should fail to perform the required voluntary service (the oxymoron can be attributed to Congress, not this writer.)

All this is proposed under the guise that it is reasonable to demand that people who benefit from public housing give something back to their community.

The truth is that people in public housing are the same as anyone else (unless being poor disqualifies a person from being a good citizen.) Their poverty may, to some extent, limit their ability to make significant contributions to society, but many wealthy people make little or no contribution to society despite their affluence.

Millions of Americans -- rich and poor -- receive government benefits in one form or another. Public housing residents are only a tiny percentage of those who may be viewed, by some, as having an obligation to pay back society for its largesse.

Thinly Veiled Assault on the Poor

The effort by Congress to place this burden on public housing residents is nothing more than a thinly veiled, direct assault on the poor and downtrodden, primarily by right wing elements.

Some of those who are targets of the proposed legislation have gone so far as to say there's racism at its core, and implementation of the idea would make slaves of those in public housing. We should all hope that racism is not in the minds of the proposers.

Abominable Ideas

We can discuss the pros and cons of this issue 'til the cows come home -- although I fail to see anything positive about the proposal -- but the sad truth is that we should not even be discussing these abominable ideas.

Even well-meaning people like Rep. Jesse Jackson of Chicago are talking about exemptions of employed people, the elderly, the disabled and children -- instead of taking a strong stand against the whole concept.

Incredible HUD Proposal

It's difficult to believe, but, according to the Associated Press, even the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has developed its own proposal along the same general lines. HUD was created to help low income people, not to make slaves of them.

On top of that, some people are trying to link the proposal to President Clinton's recent summit and effort to promote voluntarism in the United States. Voluntarism and enforced community service are two different things.

There's no such thing as mandatory charity, and no such thing as forcing people to volunteer.

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on June 7, 1997. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages. To view my HubPages Profile Click Here

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Comments 19 comments

Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Amazing hub William. You make some good points.

regards Zsuzsy


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

You're very kind, Zsuzsy Bee. We really do need to keep a close eye on how the government goes about its work. Thanks.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

Good Hub. Volunteerism was to offset some part of outstanding sutdent loan balances at some point, but I don't know of any instances in which it did. My thousands of hours of volunteer service have done nothing but help other people. :)


The Indexer profile image

The Indexer 8 years ago from UK

There's something very wrong here, and I reckon it comes from the military mindset that says "I want three volunteers, you, you and you". One of the bad aspects of this, and there are several, is that it devalues the efforts of the genuine volunteer. The recipient of the voluntary service might well imagine that all the "volunteers" are in the same category and therefore not give the true volunteer the respect that they deserve.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

That's true. Some people believe that volunteers are worthless or cannot hold a job.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thanks, Patty and The Indexer, for your welcome addition to the discussion. I always remember one of my professors at NYU who liked to say that when you use volunteers you always get your money's worth. But the thing that bothers me the most is the anti-poor people attitude of government agenies. And, The Indexer, the first thing I learned when I was in the Army was "never volunteer" for anything. The first time my sergeant asked for volunteers when I was in basic training I raised my hand and wound up on the garbage detail.


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

To your point, to volunteer is to give through free will.

This legislation made volunteering mandatory, and yes, it's an oxymoron.

Since I read your hub early this morning, I've been researching what happened since 1997.  What I found is that the lambs have been led successfully to the slaughter. 

For the most part, those who live in public housing complied where this law was enforced.  They accepted this dictate, because they felt they had no choice. 

The media, between 1997 and now, showcased positive outcomes, as in, now poor people can expand their opportunities through volunteering, and therefore gain experience and find employment.

You brought this issue to light in 1997.  The proposed legislation that you speak of became law.  What are your thoughts about all of this since then?


In The Doghouse profile image

In The Doghouse 8 years ago from California

William,

Interesting side you have taken with this issue. I am anxious to hear your reply to Sally's question. I am of the mindset that the simple "dole" is not a healthy way to increase self esteem. Is it possible that the studying Sally did may prove that point? This has aroused my curiosity.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

I appreciate your comments, Sally's Trove and In The Doghouse. Are you suggesting that it's OK for the government to bring its might down on the poor as long as some good comes from it? Isn't that what George W. Bush is doing in Iraq? Is it OK for our government to invade and destroy the regime of another country as long as some time in the future it recovers from the war and becomes a democracy? If that is so, then let's help all those nondemocratic countries by invading them.

Would you favor requiring wealthy Americans to finance new homes for the country's poor people as long as the outcome was positive? Wouldn't that be a good way to restore prosperity to our decaying cities?

Didn't civilization create government to protect and benefit its citizens? If not, we're all in big trouble.


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Actually, I wasn't suggesting any of those things. I read your hubs and wanted you to know that I understand what was going on at the time that you wrote your initial article in 1997. I followed up with my own inquiries. I do sincerly want to know what you think eleven years later.

Best regards, S.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thanks, Sally's Trove. The point of my column in 1997 was that government should not be treating poor people, or any segment of our society, like second class citizens. I continue to hold that position today.You made the point that there have been "positive outcomes." My previous reply was responding to that and to the comments of In The Doghouse.My thoughts since that time are unchanged. The legislation to which you refer is a travesty. People in public housing are not second class citizens; they do not deserve to be singled out by the government to do penance for their sins against the state.Your comments seem to indicate that you endorse the legislation that became law after I wrote this column. If I am correct, I would be very interested to know what conclusions you have made as a result of your research on the subject.


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

First, it is not I who think that there are positive outcomes.  It is the media who made that statement.

Second, I in no way endorse the legislation that ensued after you wrote this column.  That legislation is a travesty.

Perhaps I did not make myself clear, and if so, that is my error, and I apologize. 

I in no way condone this legislation and what happened as a result of it in Tennesse, in New York, and in Illinois, to name just a few states.  As I said in my earlier comment, "What I found is that the lambs have been led successfully to the slaughter."  Meaning, the people in public housing went, for the most part, compliantly to do their requisite number of hours of "volunteer" public service.

I could go on and on about this, but what I really wanted to know from you was, eleven years after you wrote this column, what do you think should happen now regarding enforced volunteerism?  What can we do to make a change here?  Do we all need to sit around with our thumbs up our you-know-whats, or is there something we can do to make a difference?

It's one thing to bemoan the state we are in, and it's another thing to take action. What has happened here is indeed a travesty.  What I am asking is, from your perspective of being there at the beginning, where do we go from here?


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

I am very happy to hear that you believe what has happened over the last decade is a travesty. I'm sorry that I didn't see where you were coming from. Fighting government injustices is never easy. I think everyone who believes in justice must speak out -- as we are doing here on HubPages. We need to let our city, state and federal legislators know where we stand at every opportunity. A good start would be to volunteer in the political campaigns that are already under way throughout the country. I was press secretary for my congressional candidate in Connecticut (Stephanie Sanchez (D-4th), who was defeated in the 2000 campaign by longtime Congressman Christopher Shays (R-4th), and began to work with Diane Farrell (D-4th) but had to drop out to have a triple bypass. It also will help to vote for those candidates who are likely to support action on this issue after the presidential elections in November. It also helps to attend meetings and hearings at the local level and make your opinions known through letters to the editor -- as well as on Hubpages.


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

As you said in the opening of your article, this legislation took the principle of voluntarism and morphed it into a system of punishment--mandatory community service. What disturbs me is the lack of outcry by so many, poor or not, at the time and since, because this legislation was only one small step on the road to taking away our individual freedoms.

What followed next? The Patriot Act. It was approved almost unanimously by both the Senate and the House, even though this legislation allows the government to invade our privacy without cause, thereby taking away another freedom. Although there has been an outcry from some, and the government admits there have been abuses of the Act, the reaction of most Americans has been to accept without protest in order to be patriotic.

Next step? If you have secured a US passport since August 2007, you know there's a microchip embedded in your document which contains your electronic portrait and additional identifying data.  The stated purpose of this chip is to assure that the passport belongs to the person presenting it.  However, this technology can track your movements and, under some circumstances, purportedly can be accessed by chip readers that are not a part of the secure e-passport system. The overwhelming reaction to the implementation of this technology has been, "Well, if it's a weapon in the war against terrorism, then I don't mind." (For more information about e-passports issued by the US, see travel.state.gov/passport.)

What began with the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, enacted to punish poor people, has now progressed into a pattern of chiseling away at our fundamental liberties, whether we are poor or not. The next steps in stripping away our rights are in progress (the U.S. Passport Card, the Real ID Card, and microchip implants are either here or not far away). It makes me wonder if the 1998 legislation was designed as a test case to determine how easily citizens could be manipulated into compromising their own rights and the rights of others.  And of course, it would have made sense to start with the poor, those who are already vulnerable.

William, I sincerely thank you for re-publishing your 1997 article, because it gave me the opportunity to start to undo what I did in 1997, which was to turn a deaf ear to the issue of enforced volunteerism.  You suggested a good list of actions, and I'm on my way!


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

I couldn't agree more with your very saavy observations, Sally's Trove.

In my earlier replies, I was trying to stay within the confines of the original column. I think that's what led to some misunderstanding.

I, too, am disheartened by the sheep-like attitude of so many Americans who are allowing the erosion of our Constitutional rights without a whimper. The problem is so enormous that it would take a book, at least, to discuss it in any detail.

The Patriot Act and the issues of the U.S. Passport Card and the Real ID Card are bad enough, but there are many more issues unspoken here. The government is rushing to put (Big Brother) cameras in every conceivabe location, and the Bush Administration is trampling on our rights in a wide range of actions.

To mention just a few, the Bush Administration is attempting to strip us of our right to habeas corpus; it is endorsing of the use of torture, politicizing the Attorney General's office, outing our secret agents, pushing the Unitary Executive theory, abusing Executive Orders and signing statements, promoting warrantless surveillance, not to mention starting unnecessary wars, allowing the disgrace of Abu Graib, maintaining Guantanamo ... I could go on and on.

Even the Democratic candidates for president, Barach Obama and Hillary Clinton, fail to speak out loudly and clearly against these atrocities! And half the country is considering voting for John McCain, who stands side by side with the chief exponent of all these abuses -- George W. Bush!

Where is the indignation? Where is America?


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

William, what I think is so fascinating about your hubs is that they give a perspective. I haven't read them all, but I see that many of them are articles you wrote in the late 90s. What good is a life that doesn't consider the historical perspective?

I hope your current readers use your insights of then to reflect upon now. And I hope your comments always reach beyond the confines!


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

You are very kind, Sally's Trove. Unfortunately, too few people take an historical perspective to today's problems. As they say, if you don't know where you've been you have little chance of knowing where you're headed. It is my greatest hope that those who read my columns will give further thought to the subject. Sometimes it's necessary to confine one's comments to the subject at hand to prevent losing the point by going too far afield. I very much appreciate your commments and your perspectives. Thanks.


dineane profile image

dineane 8 years ago from North Carolina

This article reminds me of a new requirement in my daughter's school district. A 30-hour "volunteer" community service project is required for high school graduation. I can't eloquently and completely cover my distaste for this requirement in a comment, but at the root I share your opposition to "forced voluntary service. "


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, dineane, for your very interesting comment. It is sad that we've learned so little from recent history that we continue making the same mistakes that we've made over the past decade (especially.) I hope the parents and teachers of your school district have the courage to speak out against such fundamentally flawed policies.

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