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Washington, DC – There is strong evidence over the past eight decades – from the 1930’s thru the 1990’s and AmeriCorps – that national service plays an effective role in solving specific problems in every sector of our society. 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.
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. A new paper from the Center for American Progress 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.
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 demonstrates, 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.