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A Way to Reinvent Citizenship

March 05, 1995|ELLIOT STEIN JR. | Elliot Stein Jr. is managing director of an investment firm in New York City

Increasing numbers of Americans have concluded, as the November elections reflect, that government has generally failed at solving social problems, and budgets are certain to be cut. The private sector is structured to sell products or services to earn profits. So we must consider nonprofit groups that provide services and mediate social and personal needs as an increasingly vital component of our future national well-being.

There are more than 1.4 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. As Jeremy Rifkin notes in his new book "The End of Work," a 1991 Gallup survey reported that more than 94.2 million adults--50% of the adult population--spent an average of 4.2 hours per week with nonprofit organizations, the equivalent economic contribution of 9 million full-time employees, the survey said.

These "not-for-profits" include hospitals, clinics, schools, religious organizations, social agencies like the Girl Scouts and individual efforts. They range in size from the Salvation Army, (1.7 million volunteers who raised $1.3 billion in 1993) to small local agencies like Ready, Willing and Able in New York City (about 20 social workers, budget less than $1 million), which takes homeless men out of shelters, helps them get off welfare and drugs and finds them jobs.

In addition to providing the more obvious services like education and helping the helpless, nonprofit organizations incubate new ideas, help mediate social grievances, help preserve traditions and culture, find companionship for people and teach them how to participate in community life. This is the realm that will reshape the social contract in the next century. The independent sector mediates between the for-profit marketplace and the government by assuming tasks and responsibilities that the other two sectors cannot remedy.

The President should appoint a bipartisan national commission to study the role and future of this independent, or third sector. The commission could increase awareness of nonprofits and seek mechanisms to promote private initiative to do public good. The discussions must consider what services and causes are best delivered by the third sector. Questions regarding our tax structure must be considered. For example, if we give money to a philanthropic or other tax-exempt organization, we receive a tax deduction. Why not consider a deduction for our time given, especially in light of government's shrinking role in these social-service areas? The commission should also review the independent sector in countries such as England and Japan, where voluntary associations have a broad role.

Republicans and Democrats talk about reinventing citizenship. It is this third sector that people will gravitate to in the future to address social and personal problems and needs that the marketplace and government cannot solve.

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