Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on October 15, 2020.
It’s difficult to find an issue that polls as well in the U.S. as voluntary national service. In a survey conducted in May by a Republican data firm and commissioned by the advocacy group Voices for National Service, 80% of respondents across the political spectrum said they supported increasing federal funding for programs like AmeriCorps, which places workers in stints with nonprofits such as health clinics and Habitat for Humanity.
And it’s not just in response to the pandemic: In January, almost four out of five voters—including strong majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents—told the same firm they wanted federal investment in civilian national service to be maintained or increased. “These levels of support and responsiveness are essentially unheard of in today’s policy debates,” pollster Michael Meyers wrote in a memo.
Yet when Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion coronavirus aid package in March, it wasn’t even mentioned. “That was a very disturbing development,” says John Bridgeland, who, as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under George W. Bush, led a substantial expansion of national service following Sept. 11. “It’s just not a top priority for members of Congress. It’s a Tier 3 priority, and I say that with sadness.”
It’s been more than a decade since Congress last voted to expand national service—and even then, funding was never authorized. The 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act was intended to triple the size of AmeriCorps, from 75,000 annual volunteers to 250,000. Five years after that bill became law, the number of AmeriCorps slots had barely budged; a federal school volunteer program, Learn and Serve America, had been eliminated; and spending on Senior Corps, which engages older adults in volunteer service, had been slashed. Proponents of national service criticized President Obama for paying lip service to it, and congressional Republicans backed major cuts during his presidency.https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2020-coronavirus-dash/
The Trump administration went further, proposing to zero out the budget for national service programs altogether, though advocates have been successful in pushing back against that call.
Voluntary civilian national service dates back to the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied 250,000 young unemployed men to join the new Civilian Conservation Corps. In that successful Depression-era effort—the most popular program of the New Deal—corps members planted trees and built dams and campgrounds on public lands. In the midst of the current economic and public-health crisis, devoting a fraction of government stimulus to Covid-19 contact tracing, math tutoring, disaster relief, and other jobs seems like an unobjectionable, and fittingly American, idea.
Advocates say there are many reasons why national service is a smart solution to our present woes. These jobs can address urgent needs in struggling communities, strengthen the bonds of civic attachment, and quickly put people, especially young people, back to work. (Youth unemployment stood at 13.5% in September.) From a cost-benefit perspective, national service also looks pretty good. In 2013 economists at Columbia University found that every dollar invested in youth national service generated almost a $4 return to society, and more than $2 in taxpayer savings.
Even as negotiations over more stimulus flounder, there is some momentum again on Capitol Hill behind expanding national service, and leading advocates say they’re optimistic. A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in June by Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, and Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi would quickly double the number of AmeriCorps positions in response to the pandemic and offer 600,000 service opportunities nationwide over the next three years. The $16.6 billion Corps (Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service) Act has 17 co-sponsors, including Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and Florida Republican Marco Rubio.
“National service has long enjoyed bipartisan support for a simple reason: It works,” Coons said. “Many of us—Republicans and Democrats—have seen the very real impact national service programs have on our communities and the Americans who serve. The Corps Act will ramp up these locally driven programs, empowering Americans in our hard-hit communities to be part of our recovery while earning valuable skills for the future.”
The chances of the Corps Act passing before the election are slim to nil. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who leads President Trump in polls, has not discussed national service specifically on the campaign trail. However, he has come out in favor of establishing a so-called Public Health Jobs Corps, a national-service-like program that would mobilize at least 100,000 Americans to help with coronavirus contact tracing. Biden also tapped Pete Buttigieg to join his transition team; Buttigieg campaigned hard during the primary on scaling up national service.
AnnMaura Connolly, the president of Voices for National Service, says she’s seen “more progress in terms of deepening, strengthening, and broadening our support in the last couple years than since I started working in this field almost three decades ago.” Connolly points to a greater appreciation of volunteers’ impact on the local level, which she says has translated into more pressure on the national level and yielded more congressional backers, especially Republicans.
Alan Khazei, a co-founder of City Year, an education nonprofit that works closely with AmeriCorps, says he thinks the pandemic has created the right “conditions” to expand national service, at least after the election. “I’ve never been more excited about the potential for large-scale national service as I am now,” he says.
The challenge for advocates, he says, has been getting Congress to take young people and their opportunities seriously. Youth lack their own organized lobbying presence like AARP, and they vote at lower rates than their elders. The other challenge is that national service has long been regarded as a “nice” thing, in Khazei’s words, and “not an essential thing.” But it is essential, he says, because nothing other than national service can effectively address so many of the nation’s problems at once.
Khazei was part of an 11-person bipartisan commission Congress authorized in 2017 to study national and military service. In late March, after two-and-a-half years of public hearings and research around the country, it published a list of recommendations, including increasing the living stipends for participants and using national service to reintegrate ex-offenders. Together, these steps would support 1 million national service opportunities annually by 2031, the commission’s final report said.
Joe Heck, who chaired the commission, says the report’s rollout was overshadowed by the Covid crisis. “We had a whole week’s worth of activities planned in Washington, including scheduled committee hearings, which were postponed.” The commission still provided input to some federal representatives—and it sparked a House bill, the Inspire to Serve Act, introduced by Democratic Representative Jimmy Panetta of California—but Heck worries that his commission’s work will become “like so many other congressional reports, which sit on a shelf and collect dust.”
While there is some evidence of momentum in Congress, illustrated by a flurry of new national service bills, including the Inspire to Serve and Corps acts, the old barriers remain. Bridgeland notes that lawmakers who sign on to co-sponsor a bill may not be willing to actually go to bat during negotiations. “The field still has a lot of work to do to make national service a Tier 1 priority,” he says.
Connolly, of Voices for National Service, is not deterred by the lack of any expansion to speak of, more than seven months into the pandemic. “There are a number of viable vehicles to get this through,” she says. “And if national service ends up not being in whatever the next package is, we will keep going.”