I hate to tackle the same topic two weeks in a row, but I received an interesting reply to my column last week, when I celebrated the quantity and quality of volunteers in Utah.
A local gerontologist sent me a copy of an article he had published in "The Golden Age" in September 1978. The article questioned whether voluntarism in many cases doesn't do more harm than good.He cited several examples of abuse of volunteers.
One elderly woman with many disabilities, he said, had to "literally drag herself" to a local public hospital to give her time to the patients. "She did this because the hospital made available to her a nutritious lunch, which she could not afford to prepare for herself at home."
At a local institution, he wrote, volunteers serve primarily publicity purposes. One man, for example, runs an automatic elevator. "Is there a sense of contempt here?" he asked in the column. "Is it voluntarism that is important, or the associated publicity?"
Because many of the tasks performed by volunteers require little or no training, they could be performed for pay by a "large group of the untrained or disabled unemployed." The volunteers keep the untrained unemployed out of the workforce.
In turn, the lack of jobs "insures a perpetuation of a reservoir of cheap help."
I agree with the doctor that the problems he cited do exist. There are people who do things they don't want to get a good meal, for example. And many of the jobs that volunteers perform could be paid for.
But I think that he makes some assumptions: For example, that individuals and institutions have enough money and the willingness to pay for those services.
Many of the tasks volunteers perform are valuable, but not "essential." Yes, you could pay someone to grow a garden, read to the ill, visit with and help the infirm elderly, or run an elevator. I just don't think you would.
In a tight fiscal year, individuals and organizations alike look for ways to cut back on expenses, and many services are not funded.
I have a strong suspicion that services requiring "little or no training" which could be performed for pay by a "large group of the untrained or disabled unemployed" would be a low priority if they had a price tag.
Instead, I think it highly likely that the job would either not be done at all, or it would be added to the workload of an existing employee at no additional compensation.
I am also a little unclear on the question of the woman who dragged herself to her volunteer job in order to get a nutritious meal.
There's nothing to indicate that banning voluntarism will feed her. The article never said whether she'd contacted any service agencies or meal-on-wheel type programs to see if she qualified for delivered meals. With her "many disabilities," she very well might have.
The doctor's final point has some validity. He wrote that thousands of the elderly in the Salt Lake area live below the poverty level.
"How can one reconcile the morality of asking the aged to work for free, when they cannot afford to live?" he wondered.
It's true that far too many elderly live below the poverty level. So do volunteers in other age groups. But I believe that people who volunteer their time do so for a number of reasons.
It may be to combat loneliness, stay active, get out of the house, because something in their heads and hearts makes them want to give, because they have time on their hands and want to fill it the list could go on.
I don't believe volunteers feel coerced in some way to give their time when they could be selling it.
I'd love it if there was so much money around that we could afford to pay everyone for his labors and if we paid them for their contribution to society, volunteers would make a lot of money.
But the reality is, there isn't enough money. And for all I know, if there were, we'd use it for something else anyway.
Fortunately, there are people who are willing to give their time and talent to help others, because without them, many things would not be accomplished, and the world would be a grayer place.
But the best thing about voluntarism is this: No one is forced to volunteer. It's voluntary. That's the meaning and heart of the word.