Governor Sarah Palin, in her acceptance speech for Vice Presidential Republican Candidate, fired the following political shot at Senator Obama: “I guess being the mayor of a small town is similar to being a community organizer, except that a mayor has actual responsibilities.”

            The media, especially Internet bloggers, loved the quote because it was a surprise attack on Senator Obama, in the tradition of borderline dirty politics. In the same speech she likened herself to a pit bull.

            With her vicious remark denigrating community service, she “shot herself in the foot” because a major theme of the RNC was service. Hundreds of Republican delegates waved placards saying nothing but “SERVICE.”

            In his own acceptance speech, John McCain loudly stated “We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don’t legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities.”

            While most people only heard the impassioned plea for impartial judges, he actually included community and service in the same sentence. Community service is a Republican priority but very low on the list of priorities. Sara Palin only used the word “service” once when she referred military service.

            George H. W. Bush in his 1988 inaugural address placed community service as one of his highest priorities with his catchy phrase “a thousand points of light.” He explicitly stated that these points of light were community organizations and he promised to go to all members of his government and the entire public to try to get them to participate in these community organizations. Twenty years later he is still setting a wonderful example, but his party’s latest candidates have mostly forgotten his message.

            Why does community service deserve a higher priority among Republicans? Well, duh, it is the only way to keep a society functioning if you cut taxes and cut government spending. 

            The United States already depends mightily upon community volunteers and the more we trim government services the more we need volunteer services. The Current Population Survey of the U.S. Census found that in 2007 one in four (26%) of Americans 16 and older volunteered with one or more organizations.

            Sixty-one million Americans gave 8.1 billion hours of time to their communities. For those who volunteered, they each worked an average of 133 hours per year or 22 minutes per day. Volunteers made a most impressive contribution to their country; they deserve applause, not sneers.

            Each year the Independent Sector estimates the economic value of the free hours put in by community volunteers. For 2007 they concluded that volunteer hours were worth on average $19.50, which adds up to a total economic value of $162 billion in free labor. If volunteering for sports and churches is dropped from this total, then we can say that volunteers contributed $90 billion of their time to community organizations last year.

            The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s American Time Use Survey also found that Americans volunteered an additional 19.8 billion free hours for their communities without going through an organization. Using the same hourly rate and adjustment factor, the total value of informal community service last year was $206 billion. Adding together both types of community service or volunteering, we get a total of $296 billion in free community service.

            Why is this so significant? If American adults were to have to pay to get that work done in their communities, it would cost every tax payer about $2,600 more in taxes per year. The average household would pay $5,570 more per year in taxes.

            Look at this another way. Community volunteers every year are giving each tax-paying household a free rebate of $2,672.

            Suppose in the interest of reducing the size of government, more cuts were made in services for vulnerable groups such as hurricane victims, the elderly, the disabled, and the very poor. Such a policy would make the need for community volunteers even greater than now. But community volunteers are not going to come to the aid of those who need help, unless their free time and effort are appreciated.

            The Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate got political mileage by putting down the work of “community organizers,” but at great expense to the well-being of society. Barack Obama in the 1980s worked for several years as a “community organizer” in the equivalent of a ghetto in Chicago’s south side. He worked more than full time at such a low salary that he essentially was giving most of his time free to the community. In that sense he was a community volunteer.

            Most community volunteers work for private, non-profit organizations like food shelves, nursing homes, and hospitals. But the governmental sector can play a role too. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are two very successful examples of government sponsored programs that coordinate the services of community organizers. Such organizers typically receive so little pay that they are for the most part community volunteers.

            From his experience in working in the “trenches” of urban Chicago, Barack Obama dreamt up similar service corps that could solve social problems at a very low cost. Combining his ideas with those of Joe Biden, they drafted the “Plan for Universal Voluntary Citizen Service.”

            The Obama-Biden plan would not only expand AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, but would integrate service-learning into schools and universities. Ways would be explored to engage diverse groups including retirees and disadvantaged youth in community service programs. The price tag would be low but the social and economic benefits far reaching.

            Do you want a national leader who denigrates volunteering or one who knows how to capitalize on volunteers?