One of the buzz phrases of the right-wingers over the past several years has been "ownership society." What they mean by that is it's every person for themselves. But Barack Obama is looking to bring in a true ownership society, one that will reverberate for generations.
Obama has just launched change.gov, his website as President-elect. He is clearly looking to hit the ground running, already naming a transition team and putting together an economic advisory board with some very big hitters. The new site is heavy on an emphasis that the new administration will need America's help to move the country forward. Obama is looking to expand national service in many areas, particularly in education and health care.
But what really got my attention on the "America Serves" page of the change.gov site was this:
Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year.
50 hours a year for middle and high school students. That might sound like a lot - until you do the math and realize it breaks down to about an hour a week, or two hours a week in college. An hour a week for young people to turn off the video games and help their community. An hour a week of picking trash up off the roads, or helping put together boxes at the local food bank. An hour a week reading the paper to blind people, or reading books to preschoolers. An hour a week of delivering meals to shut-ins, or working at the veteran's home. An hour or two a week.
And you know what? That is a true ownership society.
The utopia envisioned by the right-wingers, to be sure, doesn't discourage helping out your fellow neighbor. But it emphasizes that you are only responsible for you. If you're down and out, well, sucks to be you, and why haven't you bettered yourself? If you've got yours and you can afford to pay the bills, can afford medical care, can afford groceries, and can afford your house payments, that's because you made it happen. What the Right wants focuses on the ownership part and ignores the society. I'm a believer in working hard and earning everything that you get. I believe that you have the full right to enjoy the fruits of your labor. But I also believe this - no one succeeds without the kindness of others, and almost always a little luck.
You don't get to dictate your circumstances in life. If someone is born with a medical condition, the physical ailments may prevent them from doing a wide variety of jobs, and the medical expense can eat a huge chunk of their income, preventing them from making progress in the world. Someone who has to devote a significant amount of time and income taking care of elderly parents isn't going to make much headway. Kids born into poverty have a steep uphill climb ahead of them.
We have all made mistakes in life, some big and some small. The difference is that many of us were lucky enough to not have to face the full consequences. Maybe a teenager gets pregnant, while a friend or hers engaging in the same risky behavior doesn't. Perhaps a cop decided to give you a stern talking to instead of taking you to jail and putting a permanent blot on your record. Maybe that schoolteacher knew that you were better than that, and gave you another chance to take that test that you blew off,which let you save your GPA and a scholarship.
And we've all needed some kind of help at some time. Maybe someone at your church gave your family enough help to get by through a tough time, which let your parents keep the house. Maybe someone - a teacher, a counselor, a relative, or someone else - took you under their wing when you were going astray. Or maybe that food bank that can use volunteers sent you a food box when you lost your job.
That's where Obama is asking America to take ownership of society. An hour a week to help that chronically ill person get their groceries or clean their house. An hour a week to help out the single parent who comes home from a long day at work to begin hours of intensive caring for an invalid parent. An hour a week to give a hand up to the kids who don't have much at all in this world. An hour a week to be that friendly voice to a teen mother. To help steer that kid straight after the courts have placed him on probation. To tutor other students. The opportunities are endless. It is a chance for young people to learn how much the world needs them. A chance for them to actually make the world a better place. A ownership stake not just their own future, but in their community's future. It's also a chance for everyone to own a bit of America's present and future.
An hour a week to take ownership of America. It's a reasonable request.