Center for American Progress

Serving America: A National Service Agenda for the Next Decade

Serving America: A National Service Agenda for the Next Decade

Senior Fellow Shirley Sagawa outlines a plan for transforming national service into large-scale efforts to solve America’s most pressing problems.

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There is strong evidence over the past eight decades that national service plays an effective role in solving specific problems in every sector of our society. In the 1930s, the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps started by President Franklin Roosevelt engaged 3 million unemployed young men to fight soil erosion by planting trees, building structures in national parks, and otherwise protecting America’s natural resources. VISTA volunteers working to alleviate poverty in the 1960s paved the way for national service programs dedicated to helping our senior citizens in the 1970s. Youth service in the 1980s led to the creation and a full range of national service programs that engaged American youth and adults, including the Points of Light Foundation, in the early 1990s.

Then, in 1993, President Clinton proposed the AmeriCorps program, building on the national service demonstration program enacted by Congress three years earlier, and extending and expanding other service programs already in operation. Unfortunately, America’s progressive experiment with national service legislation ran into concerted conservative opposition. Some conservatives derided these programs, arguing that they simply paid people to volunteer. Authorizing legislation enacted in 1993 expired in 1997, the victim of calculated neglect by the Congressional opponents.

And yet individual members of Congress, recognizing the important role of national service in our public life, came together in an informal bipartisan coalition to continue funding these programs, enabling millions of Americans—including half a million AmeriCorps members—to demonstrate the effectiveness of national service. AmeriCorps members served their communities through programs supported in whole or in part by this legislation, with additional funding from private funders, as well as state and local governments.

The flexible and community-driven nature of these service programs resulted in a diversity of innovative initiatives, continuing this great experiment in national service despite the absence of authorizing legislation from Congress. Organizations ranging from local schools and afterschool programs to large national youth corps and brand-name nonprofits took part. Social entrepreneurs, in particular, looked to national service to provide the human and financial resources they needed to grow their new and creative social service organizations.

In some cases, the availability of federal funds inspired issue-focused organizations to incorporate service into their delivery mechanisms.  In other cases, funded nonprofit organizations considered national service as their primary mission. In still other cases, organizations looked to AmeriCorps members to create an infrastructure for engaging volunteers.

While not every program met its objectives, many did. Numerous evaluations and studies have documented the results of service programs, and experience has provided insights into what works for different situations. Today, national service programs that tackle a range of pressing issues—from global warming and economic self-sufficiency to community health and quality education—provide a unique support system for communities and have a proven track record of improving society as a whole.
This paper presents a range of examples of programs that work, among them:

  • AmeriCorps members have dramatically expanded the capacity of Habitat for Humanity to increase its output of volunteer-built homes.
  • EducationWorks AmeriCorps members provide clubs, summer camps, and youth leadership programs through urban schools, increasing school attendance by an average of 20 days and improving students’ academic achievement and behavior.
  • Eighty-five percent of Community Health Corps members opt to enter the health care field after their term of service, which they spend enrolling patients into free or low-cost health insurance plans, learning to manage chronic conditions, and helping them navigate through the health care system.

The success of these and other national service programs is precisely why congressional reauthorization of these programs is long overdue. Partisan and ideological conflict over the past decade has prevented a constructive reexamination of national service’s even greater economic and societal potential. Cases in point:

  • Expanded national service programs dedicated to providing educational help to our youth and to adults seeking new educational or employment opportunities would boost our national economic competitiveness and enhance social mobility.
  • Growth of national service programs in the health care arena could help provide greater economic security to the millions of Americans unable to access decent health insurance.
  • New national service programs designed to lead our nation toward a low-carbon economy in communities across the country would help our nation confront the threat of global warming.
  • New and existing national service programs can increase upward social mobility by connecting disadvantaged and disconnected youth with school and work through programs that combine opportunities to participate in service with training in fields that are in high demand.
  • National service programs can accelerate innovation in the social services sector by providing human resources to social entrepreneurs.

It is time to make use of the experience gained over the past decades to sharpen the role of national service and transform these programs into large-scale efforts to solve some of America’s most pressing problems. Today we as a nation are unable to realize the full potential of national service programs. We need to maximize the impact of national service through strategic investments in existing non-profit organizations and by funding social entrepreneurs. Specifically, to give national service the attention it so clearly deserves, the Center for American Progress offers a comprehensive set of recommendations, among them:

  • Create growth funds to expand highly effective national service programs meeting specific priority needs, including youth and adult education, community health, alternative energy opportunities, and economic and social mobility.
  • Substantially increase the funds available for planning grants and innovative new programs by creating a national service Innovation Fund to test other ways that national service can address priority issues, such as teaching immigrants English, closing the digital divide, and ending rural poverty.
  • Expand specific national service opportunities for Americans during key life transitions, including:
  • A Summer of Service for middle schoolers in transition to high school;
  • Youth Corps to engage disconnected youth in service while they work on their GEDs and learn job skills;
  • Opportunities to attract recent college graduates into social services fields through full-time AmeriCorps service;
  • Engaging retiring adults and adults in career transitions in teaching, mentoring and learning opportunities through national service.
  • Amplify the long-term impact of national service by:
  • Investing in social entrepreneurship by helping AmeriCorps alumni create new social service programs.
  • Mobilizing AmeriCorps alumni as a “ready reserve” to provide skills useful in times of crisis and as a resource to address ongoing challenges faced by communities everywhere.
  • Investing in nonprofit capacity building by continuing to allow AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps*VISTA members to make nonprofit capacity-building their primary activity.
  • Expanding private sector investment in national service by increasing the availability of and ease of applying for cost-sharing and education-award-only programs.

In these many ways, national service can be used as an innovative platform for change, improving quality of life for all citizens. As this paper will demonstrate, the Center’s policy proposals for national service would dovetail effectively and efficiently with the experience of national service gained over the past 80 years.

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Shirley Sagawa

Senior Fellow

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