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The new volunteers: not what Mr. Reagan had in mind

The Reagan administration has tried to allay fears about its budget cuts by arguing that the voluntary sector stands ready to take on greater responsibilities for the provision of human services. But such an assertion is based on an outmoded vision of volunteerism. Traditional voluntary activities are being rapidly supplanted by individual and community self-help efforts. This new, voluntary self-help sector promises to be far less establishment-oriented and far more political than the White House envisions.

Traditional voluntary activity -- the work of hospital auxiliaries, men's service clubs, church aid societies -- stagnated during the '70s. As a result of inflation, many moderate- and low-income individuals, the providers of a substantial portion of all volunteer hours, increasingly had to devote their evenings and weekends to second jobs just to make ends meet. As more and more women entered the labor force, the pool of housewife volunteers shrank. Increased mobility and the breakup of old communities undermined people's sense of reciprocal obligations to their neighbors.

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A new self-help volunteerism has emerged in its place. To save money and to gain some control over the cost of housing or the quality of their food, people are spending their spare time in practical, personal efforts to help themselves.

Forty-one million Americans now spend several hundred million hours each year on do-it-yourself home renovation. In 1980 such efforts had a $28 billion retail value. For the last four years, self-help rehabilitation has equaled or exceeded the value of rehab work done by professionals, reversing a 30-year trend.

Thirty-four million families also have vegetable gardens in which they spend, on average, nearly 50 hours each summer weeding and hoeing. Based on the results of a series of Gallup polls, the advocacy group Gardens for All estimates that these gardeners produce $15 billion worth of fruits and vegetables. Not since the World War II victory gardens have Americans devoted so much of their free time to growing so much of their own food.

Self-help activities are beginning to make an equally significant contribution to other segments of the economy.The Department of Energy estimates that people's voluntary conservation activities, such as simple home weatherization and walking more and driving less, could cut the cost of oil imports by as much as $14 billion. Studies indicate that the changes in dietary , smoking, and exercise habits that are already in evidence could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by one-quarter, saving the country $10 billion in medical costs and lost economic production.

In 1980 the total dollar value of traditional organized and unorganized voluntary services in the United States was $60 billion to $100 billion. Self-help activities were valued at an additional $60 billion. Taken together, this represents 4 to 6 percent of the Gross National Product.

Given contributions of this level, it is clear that volunteerism has a role to play in helping society solve its problems. But the rapid emergence of the self-help sector suggests that, to be successful, the administration's interest in voluntary activity cannot be limited to the traditional world of Rotary Clubs and local Leagues of Women Voters but must reach out to the housing coops and the self- help groups.

This will not easy. Many self-help initiatives are a product of the narcissism of the '70s. These inward-looking, individualistic activities must be encouraged to turn outward, into the community, if society is to reap their full benefit. One family weatherizing its home is of little consequence to the economy. But in 1979, when the citizens of Fitchburg, Mass., decided to help each other make their homes more energy-efficient, they reduced the town's residential energy consumption by 14 percent.

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Moreover, community self-help programs -- energy coops, neighborhood preventive health care programs, employee/community ownership of local businesses -- are inherently political.Increasingly, the new volunteerism will not the tame, establishment activities of the past but assertive efforts by low- and moderate-income people to gain some control over the economic issues that most affect their daily lives.

To date, conservatives' rhetoric has paid lip service to volunteerism without acknowledging that the nature of voluntary activity has changed. In fact, the administration's budget proposals eliminate nearly all federal support for self-help programs -- including much of the money for the urban homesteading and gardening programs, the Co-op Bank, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Neighborhood Self- Hep Development. Fortunately, Congress will probably preserve some of these activities, for the transfer of responsibilities to the voluntary sector will not succeed unless self-help activities play a prominent role.

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