The renewed focus on service work is welcome

Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama found something they could easily agree on last week – the value of community and national service.

It's something the rest of us should be able to agree on, too. This country's foundation rests on the efforts of citizens to selflessly serve their nation and their communities. Such commitment has helped keep the nation, and communities nationwide, strong and thriving.

The candidates spoke on the issue at a forum sponsored by TIME magazine Thursday at Columbia University in New York. It was part of a two-day summit meant to promote national service. Nearly 500 leaders from business, foundations, universities and politics met to “celebrate the power and potential of citizen service” and lay out a plan to address “America's greatest social challenges through expanded opportunities for volunteer and national service,” as the organizers' Web site put it.

The forum and the candidates' comments came as leaders of Congress pressed for legislation to encourage volunteerism. Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and his GOP colleague Orrin Hatch of Utah, co-sponsored a bill last week that establishes five volunteer areas – international service, disaster relief, environmental service, education service and a focus on poverty reduction. The bill includes tax breaks for businesses to encourage their employees to serve and incentives for retired and older residents. The aim is to boost volunteer and service efforts by 40 million people – to about 100 million.

At the forum, Sen. McCain noted that President Bush had missed an opportunity to call for citizens to do more service work after the terror attacks.

He's right. Americans felt a unity of purpose and a heightened sense of duty that could have been put to good use in community and national service.

But Sen. McCain added that “government can't do it all, the essence of volunteerism starts at the grassroots level. Let's not in any way stifle what's already going on, it's very, very successful in America.”

Sen. Obama noted, rightly, that the nation needs to attract more young people into public service careers as well, and that a president has a role to play in helping push people toward community service, both in military and non-military roles. He has proposals for a $3.5 billion National Service Plan to sponsor volunteerism, a $4,000 tuition credit to college students who agree to do community service after graduation.

“We need an all hands on deck approach,” Sen. Obama said. “Government should expand avenues of opportunity.”

All hands are needed. The strength of this country is its people. A renewed focus on service work is crucial to maintaining that strength, and building on it.