Service Is Work
When is a job not a job? When the worker is young and working in service of the country, according to contributors in your last issue’s national service symposium. [“A Nation in Service,” Issue #33] Although the authors offered many deft observations on the nature and outlook of national service, I found their implicit extrication of youth service from real labor to be a fundamental, and hazardous, misstep.
Shirley Sagawa [“From Idea to Reality: A National-Service Platform”] notes that “AmeriCorps programs are exempted at the federal level from minimum wage and other requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act because AmeriCorps members are not considered employees of their programs.” Other service “positions should similarly be exempted,” she suggests. Sagawa is concerned that “uncertainty regarding the status of privately funded programs with respect to minimum wage and other labor laws has limited their growth.” All of this to say that service positions at AmeriCorps and elsewhere are not and should not be legally considered “labor.” While Clive Belfield [“The Economics: Why National Service Is Worth It”] does distinguish “service” from “volunteering,” he, too, declares that it is unwise to “regard…service time as if it were a job.” Belfield’s task is to determine the economic value of national service, which he distinguishes from regular labor.
According to the authors’ logic, identical tasks taken up by service members as opposed to paid employees ought to be considered as somehow different. Yet AmeriCorps members, as well as thousands of other young adults engaged in service, do real work—from building houses to strengthening communities—that would otherwise be done by paid employees or not done at all. And, contrary to Belfield’s assumption, work is exactly what potential applicants see when they consider national service, even if it is good and moral work. For those of my generation entering the workforce, service programs are one category among many employment options. That they pay significantly less, afford less security, and are considered less serious than other types of work all contribute to our decisions.
Why, then, does Sagawa assert that participants in service programs should be paid less than the minimum wage and forego legal protections against harassment and discrimination like normal employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? Why does Belfield think that individuals conducting this work think of it as something else? Both, I think, are compelled by the same logic that perpetuates other arbitrary exclusions of labor, most notably in the realm of unpaid internships. Both arguments—the legal (Sagawa) and discursive (Belfield)—perpetuate the insidious notion that good work, particularly by youth, is not work at all. Based on the twin ideas that service is akin to charity (getting paid is not the point) and that young workers must volunteer (“pay their dues”) before getting paid, this notion routinely undermines service work. Wages in the public sector are depressed, charitable organizations are excused from paying interns, and doing good work is widely considered only a gateway to other employment.
These are the exact problems with service work that should be addressed, not expanded, in a new national-service movement. If the worry is that AmeriCorps and similar programs are “far too undervalued as critical human capital against the nation’s challenges,” we can start valuing service by paying legal wages, providing FLSA protection, and treating these jobs as jobs. To do otherwise, to eschew labor standards in search of more service positions, only furthers the widespread and unjustified narrative that young workers don’t deserve protection and respect—and, more broadly, delegitimizes service careers for workers of all ages.
The Inequality Cycle
Great review [“The Inequality Puzzle,” Issue #33]. Larry Summers brings up the most important point that others, such as Martin Wolf, have also alluded to. It is: Why should we care about inequality? I think it is actually the most important issue economically, not just socially. There is clearly lack of demand in not just the U.S. economy but also in the global economy. This is despite—and perhaps because of—record profit margins and zero interest rates in a very large part of the developed world. These facts should point to an ever-increasing share of the economy going to a smaller and smaller subset of the population. And this subset’s propensity to consume is much, much lower than the majority’s.
I am actually surprised that Summers and Wolf would bring up this question as if they did not know that this has been a recurring problem throughout history. Following every boom that led to a rise in inequality is a bust due to lack of demand—the prototypical example being the 1920s leading to the ’30s.
New York, N.Y.
When capitalism works as intended, money makes money (there is overall profit, growth, accumulation). [“The Inequality Puzzle,” Issue #33] And when (as has always been the case) a relatively small minority of the population controls most of the money, then those people make most of the money that money makes.
In other words, when capitalism works, wealth (and the power that comes with wealth) concentrates in the hands of a relative few. Thus, capitalism appears to be inherently plutocratic.
Klamath Falls, Ore.