Tag Archives: national service

National Service

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 unumout 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.



Richard Cohen recently had an opinion piece in the Washington Post addressing the undeniable fact that Americans increasingly occupy information “bubbles”–and that we rarely, if ever, intersect with the very different bubbles occupied by others.

He began by describing his long-ago relationship with someone named Charlie. He and Charlie came from very different backgrounds and had very different beliefs; their close friendship was an artifact of the draft–they served together in the Army.

Cohen said he thought about that experience and that friendship when he watched people rescue others from the devastation in Houston.

The storm, the flooding — the utter disaster — gave people a common problem and a common goal. It also reduced them to common socioeconomic status. After a while, people in trouble all look the same — wet, dirty, tired, often dazed. The storm throws them together and reduces them to the essential: people needing help, people looking to help. People. That’s it. People.

The army had done much the same leveling of differences:

We all had the same goal, which was to get through training. We all dressed alike, ate the same food, showered together and, over time, became a single unit. I mostly hated the Army, but I mostly loved those guys.

Today’s volunteer army doesn’t provide the same experience, and Cohen is realist enough to concede that there is little likelihood of reinstating the draft. (As he puts it, a generation of gluten-avoiders is not going to happily share a latrine with strangers.) Draft or no draft, however, America needs a mechanism that requires dissimilar people to interact, to actually get to know each other.

 But maybe some sort of national service would work — something lasting a year or so. Other nations do that — and they’re not the goose-stepping ones, either. Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Norway have versions of compulsory service….

We need a national service that throws us all together, the urban with the rural, the Fox News types with the MSNBC crowd. That way, Americans can get to know Americans and learn — as previous generations did — that we are all Americans. A common plight and a common goal is how Houstonians got to know Houstonians. A different plight and a different goal is how I got to know Charlie.

A couple of years ago, I worked with one of my graduate students on just such a proposal–pie in the sky as it was–a new G.I. Bill focused upon producing engaged and informed citizens through civilian service. As we argued, there are many ways in which a national program might incentivize the acquisition of civic literacy and change the civic culture.

We proposed a voluntary National Public Service program for high school graduates who would be paid minimum wage during a one year tour of duty. At the end of that year, assuming satisfaction of the requirements, the students would receive stipends sufficient to pay tuition, room and board for two years at a public college or trade school. The public service requirement would be satisfied through employment with a government agency or not-for-profit organization (like public schools or Goodwill Industries); in addition, students would be required to attend and pass a civics course to be developed by the U.S. Department of Education in conjunction with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools, thus linking service with civic knowledge.

We noted that the groundwork for such a program is already in place through existing programs like AmeriCorps that are in high demand, but limited by funding.

What sorts of outcomes might we expect? Since such a program is likely to be most attractive to those struggling to afford higher education, we could expect broader participation from those whose voices are largely missing from today’s civic conversation. A better-educated population should engage in better, more nuanced policy debates, leading (hopefully) to more thoughtful policy choices. Ultimately, we might even see more meaningful and issue-oriented political campaigns, with less of the intemperate rhetoric that characterizes messages crafted to appeal to uninformed voters.

As an added benefit, a program of this sort would also have an enormous and salutary impact on the level of student debt–currently a huge drag on economic growth.

At a minimum, national service should burst some very stubborn bubbles. At best, it would connect participants to the multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-everything fabric that is the strength and glory of the real America.