The Inanity of a Volunteer

Sunday's The New York Times Magazine featured, as the cover story, “The Vanity of Volunteerism,” by Sara Mosle. In it, she discusses her six years of experience acting as a mentor to a group of inner city, black children. Throughout the article she seems genuinely interested in these kids well being, and the reader senses that they are all better off for having known her.

But Mosle's piece is not a paean to the virtues of volunteering. Her personal story instead serves as the vehicle for criticism of cutbacks in government “social spending” and for ridicule of the notion that an army of volunteers can replace the state in caring for troubled children.

The life of these kids is still hard, Mosle informs us, “despite the boom.” (I picture her undergoing a mighty struggle to refrain from writing, “The rising tide doesn't lift all boats.”) She tells a heart-wrenching story of one of “her kids” fathers losing his job, the family's eviction from their apartment, the parents' marital split-up, life in a shelter, and the harsh realities of welfare reform. Then, she admits that she really doesn't know if this is what happened at all! What the heck, it sure builds sympathy for her case, though.

Miss Mosle's kids are frequently staring wistfully at things “that they couldn't afford.” But Miss Mosle doesn't seem to recognize that this is a universal condition of human existence. There are things that even Bill Gates can't afford, such as a cooperative Justice Department. Of course, the condition of being poor is such that there will be far more things that you can't afford if you are poor than if you are Bill Gates. As John Cleese's Robin Hood says in Time Bandits: “Have you met the poor? Wonderful people. Of course, they haven't got two pennies to rub together…” A look of dawning realization crosses his face. “… but, then, that's what makes them the poor, isn't it?” Unless Miss Mosle is advocating a Communist utopia as the solution to her kids' problems, then there will always be people who are, relatively speaking, poor, and there will be goods that their neighbors have that these poor can only wistfully long for.

At one point, Mosle receives a phone call informing her that one of her kids is being held by security at a Toys “R” Us because he had “damaged some product” during an episode of wistful staring. Miss Mosle's chagrin at the whole episode is palpable. Put a poor kid, some video games, and a dollop of yearning together and… well, next thing you know some stuff is smashed up. How of déclassé of Toys “R” Us to make a fuss!

One of the other kid's fathers was released from prison and proceeded to steal all of the family's possessions, including the child's clothes. Yet another dad, although “a present and caring parent,” was addicted to drugs and repeatedly stole from his family. Finally, after his “significant other” threw him out of the family apartment, he broke back in by smashing a window, which “cut up” his daughter. With “caring parents” like this, how could these kids possibly be having any difficulties?

But all of these tales are just an emotional shelling of the beach in preparation for Miss Mosle's attempt to land her main force – a plea for more government programs. Mosle continues: “That's not to say that volunteering has no value. But it doesn't offer a systematic solution to hunger, poverty or homelessness.” No, and neither did the trillions of dollars spent on the War on Poverty. In fact, these government programs have fallen out of favor because many people realized that they were making matters worse rather than better.

The fact is that these are individual, not systematic, problems. The solutions to them are individual, and do not involve fixing “the system.” Mosle makes a passing nod at the reality of the situation when she acknowledges that it is children's families (and, she questionably adds, their teachers) who are in the best position to help them. But she concludes by saying, “What these kids need – what all these kids need – isn't me, but a real after-school program.”

No, what these kids need – what all kids need – are good families. In their absence, the most we have are stopgap measures. It is delusional to imagine that we can evade this harsh reality by escaping into romantic visions of the land of Cockaigne, where everything that we find unsatisfactory about the human condition has magically vanished. If we try to alleviate parents of the ultimate responsibility for the well being of their children, we only will add more sorrow to already troubled lives.

July 6, 2000

Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to