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Citizens Union

The Community Service Stigma

Community service can be useful to help address community needs. Federal, state, and municipal governments throughout the United States have set up various forms of community or national service, including the Peace Corps, VISTA and AmeriCorps.

But while community service ought to be encouraged, should it be coerced outside of the criminal justice system? And should community service be required of one group of Americans who receive federal aid, but not all people who receive assistance from Washington?

Congress apparently thinks so. In 1998, the year I was elected to the House of Representatives, Congress passed the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act. This bill funded a range of programs beneficial to public housing residents, but it also contained a provision requiring public housing residents, 18 to 62 years of age, who are not working or attending college full time to perform eight hours of community service per month.

Community service ought to be a matter of choice, not coercion. We should offer incentives to encourage community service, not require it of Americans just because they have the misfortune of being unemployed. Moreover, unemployed public housing residents should not be singled out, while people who receive federal housing vouchers or a variety of other federal housing subsidies are exempt from community service.

The community service requirement stigmatizes unemployed public housing residents. Many people regard compulsory community service as a form of punishment meted out by the criminal justice system and thus will assume that a public housing resident who is forced to do community service must have done something wrong. Unemployment is not a crime.

In context, the community service requirement continues the punitive concepts of public assistance that crystallized in the 1980s and intensified under the Republicans' Contract with America in the 1990s.

I grew up in public housing in East Harlem, raised by hard-working parents, and then went on to college and law school. Later I served as a county prosecutor, as an administrative judge, as a member of the State Assembly and now as a member of Congress - who proudly represents tens of thousands of public housing residents in the Sixth Congressional District. Because of this, I have some insight into how hurtful and humiliating this community service requirement is. All of us should ask, as a public housing resident recently did, "Why stop at people who live in public housing? Lots of people get federal subsidies, including corporations. Why aren't they also forced to do community service?"

I have introduced two amendments to correct some of the unfairness of the 1998 law. The first converts community service from a requirement to an incentive. It would give each adult resident in public housing who performs eight hours of community service priority for admission to education and job training programs sponsored by the public housing agency that administers the development where that adult lives.

The second would exempt from mandatory community service any public housing resident who is 60 or older; in the third trimester of pregnancy; the parent or guardian of a child under five years of age and who resides with that child; a victim of domestic violence; parent of a child under 14 years old and who also has a spouse who is employed full time; provides more than 20 hours of unpaid child care to a child for whom that resident is not the parent or guardian; or who receives food stamps.

These amendments also spare local public housing authorities from a colossal and costly administrative headache of having to process, assign and follow up on possibly hundreds of thousands of public housing residents who are to be compelled to do community service.

I hope that the debate about the community service requirement encourages Congress and the public to take a deeper, more thoughtful look at the notion of punishing, humiliating, or singling out public housing residents. The current law seems to say that those living in public housing and who are unemployed are somehow living off of society, and therefore, need to be coerced into "giving back." Like other unemployed people, unemployed public housing residents would be happy to "give something back" in the form of the payroll and income taxes that accompany full-time employment.

Gregory Meeks, a Democrat, is the U.S. representative for the Sixth Congressional District in Queens.


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