There are multiple reasons for the current unsustainable degree of American polarization. A primary one, as I have written repeatedly, is a media environment that allows people to choose the reality most consistent with their particular biases. Another is the extreme individualism of today’s culture.
The United States has historically swung between an emphasis on community norms and an insistence on individual rights. (We rarely hit the “golden mean” promoted by the Greeks..) Too much “community” and we live in a society that demands conformity and ignores fundamental liberties; too much emphasis on the individual, and we neglect important–even crucial–aspects of the common good, and what is sometimes called “civil religion”–allegiance to the American covenant that creates community from our diversity. E pluribus unum—out of the many, one.
One of the reasons I have long advocated for universal national service is that programs like Americorp create community. Such programs bring together young Americans from diverse backgrounds and introduce them to the multiple tasks that demand civic collaboration and create a polity. I have always supported national service in the abstract, but during the pandemic, I had the opportunity to see it “close up and personal,” as the saying goes. My youngest grandson took a gap year with Americorp after his high school graduation.
My very urban, upper-middle-class grandson, raised in downtown Indianapolis, joined a group of young people from a wide variety of urban and rural environments. They were headquartered in Mississippi (address of headquarters: Confederate Avenue…) He had always been public-spirited, but he learned a lot from his Americorp teammates and the various states and environments to which they were deployed. It was an altogether salutary experience.
Given the fact that our national government is effectively gridlocked–unable to pass anything other than the most trivial measures–I don’t look for the establishment of a universal or mandatory federal program any time soon. But the Brookings Institution recently reported on the growth of service organizations at the state and local level.
Investing in educational and career opportunities for young adults is a smart bet on the future. And that is exactly what many states, cities, and counties are doing with American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) funds.
More specifically, they are directing portions of the $350 billion in ARP’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to create or expand service and conservation corps. In corps programs (also referred to as service or national service programs), members serve their community for defined periods of time, working on projects that provide clear societal value, such as building affordable housing, tutoring K-12 students, supporting public health efforts, aiding disaster response and recovery, and contributing to climate resiliency. In return, corps members earn a modest living allowance, gain valuable work experience, build skills, and, in some cases, receive a small educational scholarship. National service programs can offer a structured and supportive pathway into the labor market and postsecondary education, which is especially valuable for young people who otherwise might flounder. And they offer a solid return on investment: An analysis of AmeriCorps identified a cost-benefit ratio of 17.3 to 1. For every $1 in federal funds, the return to society, program members, and the government is $17.30.
President Biden’s “Build Back Better” Act–like so many other measures we desperately need–was stymied by the Senate filibuster. It included a robust Civilian Conservation Corp and other programs that promised a rebuilding of community and civic solidarity.
The continuing gridlock at the federal level doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The linked Brookings report highlights examples of how state and local governments are using fiscal recovery funds to support service programs.
The list focuses on climate-oriented corps programs, but there are also ARP-funded service programs focused on community needs such as promoting literacy and stemming learning loss among K-12 students.
Much of the activity, interestingly, is at the municipal level. The report cites Austin, Texas; San Jose, California; and Boston, Massachusetts.
The pandemic illustrated another virtue of service programs: flexibility. During the pandemic, these programs adapted to meet the changing emergency needs. The report tells us that AmeriCorps and conservation corps programs “pivoted to address immediate problems: distributing food to people in need; serving as contact tracers; staffing call centers; and setting up beds and triage centers.”
As helpful as these activities were, the likely long-term effects of participation in delivering them will be even more positive. When Americans from all sorts of communities and backgrounds collaborate for the common good and work together to help equally diverse communities, they learn the importance of community writ large. They learn that not everything in life revolves around the individual and/or his tribe.
They are re-introduced to the American covenant.