With GIVE Act, Congress Hurts Charities Yet Again

Why volunteer for free when you can get paid by the government instead?

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The GIVE Act has now passed both the House and the Senate and is awaiting the president's signature. At first, it sounds good—it encourages more volunteers to participate in community service through organizations like Americorps. Here's a portion of Speaker Pelosi's statement when the bill passed the Senate:

In times of great challenge, Americans always rise to the occasion. In these times, our economy, our healthcare system, and our schools need the help of the generous Americans who are willing to serve. And in so doing, our volunteers will save lives, heal disease, and create brighter futures for our children.

That sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Volunteers stepping in to help struggling schools, heal the sick, and make the world a better place ... all for free. There's only one problem: These volunteers aren't doing it for free. Last time I looked, the definition of "volunteer" is a person who works for an organization without being paid. I'm all in favor of reimbursing volunteers for travel costs like bus fare or parking—heck, I could even be talked into paying for their lunch—but this is far different than that. This bill would pay volunteers generous stipends to fund college educations. We all know what the cost of college educations are these days, and it's a lot more than bus fare.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the total outlays for this bill from 2009 to 2014 total over $8 billion. Right now, 75,000 people participate in Americorps, for a total outlay of $927 million in 2009. This legislation would expand the workforce a quarter of a million people and pay them $8 billion over the next five years. So it'll triple the number of people involved and push spending into the billions.

As the Speaker says, "in times of great challenge," do we really need to spend billions on volunteers? I've got a real problem with spending that kind of money on this when we've got far more important needs for our limited dollars—like fixing the banking crisis.

It's similar to the billions of dollars that will be transferred to the federal government from charities when the administration cuts the federal tax deduction for charitable donations. They're both examples of the ever-growing federal government taking over territory from charities: The first one took their money, now this one takes their people. Why volunteer for free at your local hospital or school when you can jump on the federal government's gravy train—and get paid as a volunteer? Neighborhood charities that rely on old-fashioned free volunteers may suffer as a result of this.

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