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Top>Opinion>Young Americans Searching for a New Society


Motoko Mekata

Motoko Mekata [Profile]

Young Americans Searching for a New Society

Motoko Mekata
Professor of International Politics and NGO Studies, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University

Which organization do American university students consider to be most popular in regards to employment?

Teach for America (TFA), a NPO (Non-profit Organization) which supports public education, was ranked as the most popular organization to work for by liberal arts students, beating out well-known companies such as Google and Apple. TFA was born from the ideas of a senior thesis written by a female university student.

During her fourth year at Princeton University, Wendy Kopp considered the disparity in education created by differences in income, race, and other factors to be the biggest form of inequality in society and wanted the young people of her generation to take much greater responsibility to change this situation. Kopp thought that the energy and idealism of young people can make an impact on the lives of disenfranchised children, and most importantly, that the country would most likely change over the long term if leaders working in a variety of fields got experience teaching in poor regions. The disparity in education is a serious problem in the US. In low-income communities, only one out of ten people are able to graduate from college. Children from these areas are already two to three years behind children of the same age from wealthy areas in terms of scholastic ability by the time they reach the fourth grade in elementary school. Half of these children will not be able to graduate from high school when they reach 18 years of age. Even if they were able to graduate, they would only have the scholastic ability equivalent to that of an eighth grade junior high school student from a wealthy area. In addition to creating the ethical problem of inequality, the disparity in education weakens democracy and has an enormous negative financial impact on the country.

With that in mind, Kopp developed the concept of starting TFA in her senior thesis. At first, she thought that the government must recruit excellent young people to teach in the poorest areas with as much ambition as those on Wall Street; doing whatever it can to recruit the finest young people. In order to accomplish that, Kopp thought a teaching corps should be launched to correct the problem of education disparity, and she wrote a letter to the President in office at the time that addressed this idea. However, the White House mistakenly thought that the purpose of the letter was finding employment, and they rejected the letter. This is what made Kopp decide to start TFA on her own at the age of 21.

However, when her senior thesis adviser looked at the estimate for the $2.5 million needed for funding the first year of operation, they thought it was crazy and said, “It’s hard enough trying to raise $2,500. There is no way that you can raise an amount like $2.5 million!” In spite of this, Kopp wrote letters to foundations and companies that she thought might donate money to the cause. She then raised the $2.5 million needed and started TFA in 1990.

At that time, she used the Peace Corps as a model for TFA. The Peace Corps was started as a federal agency to provide world peace and friendship through its activities as a result of then Senator John F. Kennedy’s call for University of Michigan students to serve their country while living and working in developing nations. Since it was started in 1960, more than 200,000 volunteers have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 139 countries. The volunteers work in a variety of fields, such as infectious disease control, information technology, the environment, and education.

Just like the Peace Corps, TFA targets young graduates just out of university and graduate school, as well as exceptional young people who have several years of work experience. After several months of specialized training, they are sent to teach at schools for a maximum of two years in regions with the lowest standards of living in the US. Although salaries differ depending on the city or region they are assigned to, teachers’ salaries range from around $30 to $50K a year which is not so different from the starting salary of a standard company in the US. Teachers are assigned to various educational institutions, from elementary schools to high schools.

In TFA’s first year, 500 men and women taught in six of the lowest income areas of the US. Today, there are 7,300 teachers working in 35 areas. TFA alumni have gone on to become educators, lawyers, doctors, and also to work for governmental agencies that are set up as educational committees. Although the number of TFA alumni has already reached 24,000, it is estimated that the corps network will grow to 80,000 within ten years since areas for assignment were increased in 2010. There are approximately 1,400,000 NPOs in the US (the number of registered organizations exempt from Federal Income Tax that earn $5,000 or more per year). On the other hand, there are 39,893 (as of late April 2010) NPOs in Japan established in accordance with the Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities (NPO Law). Among these, 149 are tax-exempt authorized NPOs (as of June 16, 2010). This means that the US has approximately 10,000 times more tax-exempt NPOs than Japan.

There is also a large difference between the amount of funds that the two countries have used to support these types of NGO and NPO activities. Aid from foundations in the US total approximately 2.7 trillion yen compared to Japan’s total aid of around 60 billion yen. Individual contributions in the US totaled 23 trillion, around 100 times larger than Japan’s individual contributions of 22 billion yen. As a rule, it is probably unreasonable to compare Japan to the US because the US has more than double the population and a GNP approximately three times larger. There are also differences between our cultures, climates, and above all, the history and events behind the founding of each nation. Even taking this into account, Japan’s amount of money for donations and social contributions is remarkably low. There are probably various reasons for this. One problem is the lack of a tax system that encourages donations to be made.

In January of this year, then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama suggested a “new society” during his policy speech and started a roundtable conference. Prime Minister Hatoyama’s mention of the “essence of the new administration” and the “new society” indicated that NPO style citizen’s organizations and private businesses bear the responsibility for the public sector which was almost the exclusive responsibility of the "bureaucracy" before now. Although there are reasons behind this, such as the financially troubled government services that are impaired and that fact that it is impossible for the government to handle diversifying demands, it is also thought to promote cooperation for solving problems by transforming society from one in which citizens and business are free to one in which everyone takes responsibility. Although the Kan Administration is now in control, it is clear that this concept of a “new society” continues to be promoted by the New Manifesto announced by the LDP in preparation for the Upper House election.

In Japan, many people think that NPO's are made up of high spirited people who perform volunteer work for free. Actually, however, there are many NPOs like TFA that are highly specialized and take on work that carries a great responsibility. In April, the Government Tax Commission decided to introduce a tax deduction, an indication of then Prime Minister Hatoyama’s 50% tax cuts on contributions. For example, if a contribution of 100,000 yen is made, 50,000 yen is refunded (however, this is limited to 25% of income). If these changes are realized, this will most likely be an epochal turning point in Japan concerning the tradition of making donations. Most of all, it is hoped that this will help resolve the financial difficulties of NPOs.

Even if no success stories like the TFA come about, it is quite possible that there will be a student born in Japan who will eventually launch an NPO that will work towards solving social problems. I am longing for the eventual development of the type of NPO that can be chosen by university students as the number one place to work.

Motoko Mekata
Professor of International Politics and NGO Studies, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Professor Mekata was born in Shizuoka Prefecture. After graduating from Sophia University (Faculty of Foreign Languages) and earning a Master’s Degree from Georgetown University Graduate School, she worked for an NPO and television station. Later, after attending Columbia University Graduate School, Professor Mekata earned a Ph.D. in International Public Policy from the Osaka School of International Public Policy. She has served as a researcher for both the Tokyo Foundation, Research Institute of Economy, Trade, and Industry (RIETI), and was a lecturer at Kwansei Gakuin University, Tokyo University, and Waseda University. She then became Professor on the Faculty of Policy Studies at Chuo University, a position she has held since 2004. Professor Mekata’s major publications include: Toward a World Without Landmines [Jirai Naki Chikyu e] (Iwanami Shoten, 1998), On the Frontline of the World’s Civil Societies—An Invitation to NGOs and NPOs [Chikyu Shimin Shakai no Saizensen—NGO NPO e no Shotai] (Iwanami Shoten, 2004), Active Citizens have Changed the World—Anti-Cluster Bomb Campaigns and Global NPO Power [Kodo Suru Shimin ga Sekai wo Kaeta—Kurasutaa Bakudan Kinshi Undo to Gurobaru NGO Pawaa] (Mainichi Shimbun, 2009)