John Bridgeland is a member of President Obama's White House Council for Community Solutions and was formerly director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and USA Freedom Corps under President George W. Bush. In that capacity, he oversaw all national and community service programs after 9/11.
Tough choices are needed to bring down spending and the deficit. But eliminating national and community service programs would strike a devastating blow to nonprofits, communities, and millions of vulnerable citizens at a time when social needs are growing, unemployment is high, and Americans are eager to serve.
National service is a smart investment because it relies on millions of citizens—not bureaucracies—to solve problems. It taps their energy and compassion to mentor at-risk youth, care for frail seniors, assist the jobless, re-engage wounded veterans in meaningful work, rebuild after disasters, and teach and tutor in our lowest performing schools. The five million citizens in national service expand the reach and impact of more than 70,000 nonprofit and faith-based organizations—strengthening schools, food banks, homeless shelters, health clinics, and other groups as they face soaring demands due to the economic downturn. The crisis in the nonprofit sector is severe and citizens can help fill the gaps through national and community service efforts. [Read the U.S. News debate and vote: Does the United States need compulsory national service?]
Habitat for Humanity has used AmeriCorps members to recruit and manage one million volunteers to build more than 10,000 homes for low-income families. City Year is mobilizing young mentors and tutors in our lowest performing schools to prevent disadvantaged youth from dropping out, a national epidemic affecting more than one million youth every year and resulting in higher rates of unemployment and crime. Teach for America is not only sending talented teachers to underserved areas, but also creating the will to transform our failing schools.
National service also provides an economic boost at a time when our country needs one. With record unemployment rates among young adults, national service performs a vital function—putting the unemployed into productive work for a year to help address the nation's needs, while giving them the skills and training to transition into full-time jobs. [See the 10 best cities to look for jobs.]
What's more, national service is a good deal for the taxpayer—leveraging more than $800 million annually in outside funds from businesses and philanthropy to support community solutions, not big government programs. The cost to the federal budget is a rounding error, as tens of thousands of young adults serve their country in exchange for a below-poverty living allowance and small educational award to defray the costs of college or graduate school. AmeriCorps is a better bang for the buck than Pell Grants and other federal programs because it requires a year of national service in exchange for public benefits.
National and community service opportunities not only enable young people to work on our greatest challenges, but also transform the lives of those who serve. We've seen countless examples of how service shapes lives—turning them away from gangs, drugs, and dropping out toward a positive path of graduation, work, and active citizenship. Young people become citizens not spectators.
Nearly every president since George Washington has envisioned an active role for citizens in keeping our democracy vibrant and addressing the nation's challenges. When Franklin Roosevelt worked to combat record unemployment during the Great Depression, he created the Civilian Conservation Corps that put 3 million young men, who were out of school and work, into productive service to strengthen our public lands. The results—which included the planting of 3 billion trees and providing drainage for 84 million acres of public land—were stunning.
John Kennedy summoned a generation to "ask not" and this year our nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps that has put 200,000 Americans into service in 139 countries. Lyndon Johnson mobilized Americans to volunteer in the war on poverty through VISTA, and Richard Nixon tapped the volunteer energy of our nation's older Americans to help at-risk youth and the elderly. Ronald Reagan talked about how our volunteer spirit flowed like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation and tapped the initiative of the private sector. [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]
In recent years, the national and community service movement has started to fulfill the promise of engaging large numbers of Americans in making intensive commitments to serve their country. Piloted by George H.W. Bush, launched under Bill Clinton, expanded after 9/11 by George W. Bush, and strengthened by the 2009 Hatch-Kennedy Serve America Act, national service has always had bipartisan support. As Congress makes tough choices on spending, it should remember that a spirit of challenge to the American people should be part of the solution and should support this bipartisan cost-effective investment in our future.