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
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
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.
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.