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Discussion of Public Service in Iowa: What's Needed Now

posted on January 12, 2009 at 10:39 AM

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President-elect Obama has his plans for increasing public service in America, and they are big plans, involving dozens of existing agencies and budgeting for hundreds of billions of dollars.

Will these plans include jobs and public improvements in Iowa? Will the price be too high? We ask some experts to shine a light into the future of public service on The Iowa Journal. 

Guests are: Adam Lounsbury - Executive Director - Iowa Commission on Volunteer Services (Des Moines), and Tim Borich - Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning - ISU College of Design and ISU Extension (Ames). 

Paul Yeager: AmeriCorps is one of many opportunities for people to serve the nation.  The public seems ready to respond.  Here are some of the questions we're going to talk about tonight in our discussion. 

  • What are those needs for volunteers? 
  • What type of personnel will be needed? 
  • And are there any incentives that will help make this happen? 

To address these questions we are joined by Adam Lounsbury, he's Director of the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service and also Tim Borich who is an Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning working with the Iowa State University College of Design and also ISU Extension. 

To the gentlemen seated at the table welcome tonight to The Iowa Journal.  Let's start, Tim, first with some history.  Where did we start?  This did not start in the 30s, what we have now.  Go back a little bit.  I understand there's a history lesson to be had here.

Tim Borich: Well, go back all the way to DeTocqueville and beyond who did studies from Europe here in the United States and traveled around the country in the early 1800s and discovered the sort of network of volunteers and sense of community that is so strong that pervades all the classes. 

In Europe it tended to be more just the aristocracy and little else but here what he found was everything from volunteer fire departments to the Masons to all of those associations and groups that did volunteer work and organized their community to do so.  And so this is a very rich tradition within the country and has gone across the country as it was settled.

Paul Yeager: So, we just mention that and a lot of things from history too.  There's still Masons and Elks and Rotarians around.  But what are the needs that we have today if we look back from history and how we would fill some of those holes today?

Adam Lounsbury: I think the needs exist in every community across the state and we're hoping that as President-elect Obama unveils his plan that that vision of national service hits those rural communities and isn't just a program that is available to larger organizations, it's something that can happen everywhere and currently that's been a struggle and so we're very optimistic.

Paul Yeager: You mentioned struggle.  What has been the biggest struggle in the past?

Adam Lounsbury: Well, there's actually, I was telling him in the green room, there's a book written when AmeriCorps was created originally in the 90s called "The Bill" because it was such a compromise.  It had a lot of different provisions that it would be state run but a federal program and the more they had to do with it the more complicated so it's a very complicated program for small organizations, especially small, rural organizations like Iowa to run and so it's just been an obstacle with the exception of programs like NCCC that are run, most of AmeriCorps out of their 100 members that serve in Iowa, 650 serve within local non-profits in their communities that they live.  And so we're working to advise the Congress to fulfill that vision on ways that they can drastically make it much simpler and easier to run so we're excited about that opportunity.

Paul Yeager: So, you fill some of those holes.  Tim, what are the type of personnel that need to go into some of those roles?  Is it more of a personnel need or is it just a better organization to get people and anybody would volunteer to help out?

Tim Borich: Yes.  Maybe speak to the demographics a little bit in this recession -- typically Iowa some of the things that inhibit, I mentioned the sense of community and the strong sense of obligation I think Iowans feel towards their community in general.  I don't think that's a miss.  I think that is real. 

But on the other side some of the things that have happened within our economy, Iowa ranks very high among the states in two-income families as an example, we have an aging population, with the coming recession and the decline in the market affecting all of these 401Ks how many people are going to be working longer versus going into more of a volunteer mode in their lives and I think a lot of the seers haven't talked about that but some studies and research has shown that this cohort that's coming into their senior years, the baby boomers, tend to have more of an inclination to volunteer and feel an obligation for service than perhaps some of the previous generations. 

So, these dynamics -- I wish I had a clear answer for you -- but I think it's almost a wait and see in some cases what's going to happen to volunteerism and some of the non-profit organizations.

Paul Yeager: So, there's a little generational difference here, not to stick you out there Tim, but Adam and I are that next generation.  How do we get that generation, ours, to follow through and the ones younger than us?  What do we set up to get them to be a part of either AmeriCorps or whatever the next agency is that comes down the pike?

Tim Borich: We were talking about that as well.  I think this whole concept of sense of community and belonging is very important in that and Iowa has a good framework for that.  We do tend to have high levels of non-profit organizations that are thoroughly engaged within the community so I think there's more opportunity here in general. 

That differs somewhat from urban to rural and the types of organizations, the type of service.  I think it's more specialized to some extent, more specialized opportunities in the urban areas with broader opportunity but more general opportunities, if I can say that, within a rural setting.  And so what people look for in the context of service and volunteerism I think varies to some extent within those types of locations.

Paul Yeager: So, those who live in an urban area on a percentage scale are they volunteering more?  There might be numbers of volunteers, more volunteers because there's bigger numbers in the city but in the rural area there's a higher percentage of people volunteering?  Is that what you're kind of saying?

Tim Borich: Yes and no.  There's a number of dynamics there as well.  It's been interesting, recently there has been some more discussion, in the Register no less, about consolidation.  Why do we have 99 counties?  Why do we have 954 towns?  Can't we consolidate those and maybe they should all be counties?  Wouldn't we save a lot of money? 

Well, kind of the funny thing in all that because I've asked economists about this and they tell me that there's such high levels of volunteerism in some of the smallest places. 

The mayor, everybody is literally volunteering, the city clerk probably gets paid ten hours but works fifty, the maintenance guy probably gets paid a fourth of what he or she should so such high levels of volunteerism in some of these places to consolidate them and to professionalize a service provision may actually cost you more than just leaving it as is. 

And so that's some of the economic impacts I think that we don't often realize of volunteerism especially in rural areas.  I think there's some like that too in urban settings.

Paul Yeager: Anything you want to add?

Adam Lounsbury: We have in our urban areas four of our cities are among the top 20 in the country which is higher than any state in the country by far, actually only one other state has more than one, that's Utah and they have two, we have Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Des Moines and Waterloo/Cedar Falls and they have a much higher overall rate in the state. 

We don't have data for every single city in the state of Iowa but we know that certain cities have higher volunteer rates than others, Davenport is a lower level and it's a metro area so we blame it on the Illinois side.

Paul Yeager: But are there certain regions -- if it is the Cedar Valley does that influence Butler County and Bremer County and Buchanan and sort of take the counties around them with it?

Adam Lounsbury: Yes and it's a metro area but we're also noticing among rural, what's defined as rural, that the volunteer rate is lower but the volunteer intensity is higher meaning that they volunteer for more hours and longer periods of time than the urban which probably makes sense considering what you're describing and the aging population.

Paul Yeager: So let's talk a little bit about incentives.  It's unfortunate we have to get to incentives, it should be that's your willingness to serve.  What type of incentives will be needed or would help fill some of these needs that are going to be upcoming?

Adam Lounsbury: A lot of what President-elect Obama has talked about is increasing a lot of the programs that are out there, expanding AmeriCorp, which provides an educational benefit for young people or older Americans that serve. 

In Iowa every demographic age group falls within the top six in the country except for one and that's our college students and they have gone from 28th to 17th over the last five years, four years which we're very happy with and they're improving at a faster rate than everybody else, which we can also blame on Illinois because they come over. 

But by incenting that -- and we also think that has a lot to do with by helping attach the young people to their communities it's a way to help strengthen those bonds and those roots that young people have when they're going to college here will help keep them here after they leave college. 

So, we're hopeful that by expanding the number of AmeriCorps positions, by providing -- he also has another proposal that you get a tax credit when you're in college to serve -- that will help and I think be more beneficial in Iowa because of the brain drain issue.

Paul Yeager: Which we've clearly gone into on this show a couple of times.  But, Tim, what if at Iowa State or Iowa, let's not pick on one specific school, but what if the president comes down and says, alright, you're going to have to be like Germany, you're going to have to serve a year in the military or two years of national service how would that go over with the college student of today?

Tim Borich: I think actually quite well and I'm just speaking anecdotally but I think I've seen a change in the students I teach in the classroom over the last four or five years. 

And one of the reasons I can say this in the College of Design we take a lot of classes and do a lot of outreach work where whole classes go off campus and work with let's say the skywalk system of Sioux City or work with the town square in Red Oak or whatever and we see that sort of service mentality more in working with the public and enjoying working with the public and a lot of that is reflected back in the classroom. 

There's less reluctance to do that kind of work as a student.  And so I'm quite optimistic actually and if you would have asked me that five years ago you wouldn't have gotten the same response.

Adam Lounsbury: The numbers backing up to this generation, the millennial generation, is volunteering at a higher rate than any generation since the World War II generation and 9-11 is part of that but this is, they seem very willing to serve and Obama actually did his national service speech here in Cornell College and it was pretty neat to see those kids very excited when he told them they were going to serve, they were excited about it.

Paul Yeager: I appreciate your time.  That's Adam Lounsbury; he's with the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service and Tom Borich with the ISU College of Design and Iowa State Extension.  Gentlemen, thank you for coming in tonight for The Iowa Journal. 


Tags: Barack Obama economy future Iowa jobs politics public service


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