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November/ December 2013 Nice Places Finish First

The economic returns of civic virtue.

By John M. Bridgeland and Alan Khazei

The second way service programs build social capital is by opening up opportunities for lower-income young people who are disconnected from school and work. YouthBuild, for instance, a nonprofit service initiative partially funded by federal grants, employs disadvantaged young people in community construction projects while helping them complete their education and get jobs. In 2010, 78 percent of YouthBuild enrollees completed the program, 63 percent obtained their GEDs or high school diplomas, and 60 percent went on to post-secondary education or decent-paying jobs.

A third way national and community service builds social capital is by expanding our notion of “we.” Programs like AmeriCorps typically bring individuals from different geographies, races, ethnicities, party affiliations, and income levels together in common national purpose. It’s no accident that one of the greatest periods of both civic involvement and upward mobility in America came in the years after World War II. A generation of Americans had grown up having witnessed the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put three million young unemployed men to work on our public lands over a decade. That generation went on to serve in the war, when the universal draft and the experience of fighting beside soldiers from widely different geographic, ethnic, and income backgrounds broadened the nation’s sense of collective identity. Not surprisingly, the “Greatest Generation” volunteered more, joined organizations more, gave more in charitable contributions, attended church, school, and community activities more, and were active neighbors, helping those in need more than the generations before or after it. Interestingly, during the same period when our civic stocks rose, Americans also voted more, entered public service in greater numbers, and had much lower levels of political polarization than we see today. Even the gap between rich and poor was smaller.

That willingness to give something back isn’t unique to the Greatest Generation. Millennials, who grew up during a time of war and economic stress, are showing such strong civic inclinations that the demand for service opportunities far outstrips supply. Applications to AmeriCorps soared from 359,000 in 2009 to more than 580,000 in 2011 (the latest year for which numbers are available) for only about 80,000 slots, half of which are full-time. There were 150,000 requests for applications to the Peace Corps for the 4,000 annual openings in 2011. Other service programs are similarly oversubscribed, like Teach for America (48,000 applications for 5,800 positions). This gap represents wasted democratic energy and social capital that could be put to work at very low cost to improve our country.

Recognizing this growing demand, a strong bipartisan majority in Congress passed, and Barack Obama signed, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009, which authorized a tripling of AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 members. But with the budget wars that commenced after the 2010 midterms, little of those extra funds materialized. The House even voted to eliminate all funding for the CNCS and the programs it administers, like AmeriCorps (thankfully, those cuts didn’t become law, although Senior Corps was cut dramatically).

In response to congressional paralysis, Obama in July issued a presidential memorandum instructing federal departments and agencies to use existing recourses to create their own service programs to support their missions. These agency-specific service initiatives will be modeled after programs like FEMA Corps, a new partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the CNCS that trains and deploys teams for ten months to aid in disaster relief.

The outside momentum for national service is also building. Groups like Voices for National Service, which leads the effort to boost funding for AmeriCorps, and ServiceNation, which championed the passage of the Serve America Act, are keeping the service field together right at a time when the country needs their advocacy and creativity most. And this summer, the Aspen Institute established the Franklin Project, led by retired General Stanley McChrystal, to help realize the goal of engaging more than one million young Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight in a year of civilian national service, on par with the more than one million Americans on active duty in our military.

To help reach that goal, the Franklin Project will challenge private-sector institutions, be they universities or nonprofits, to create, fund, and manage new opportunities for national service. These new positions will be certified by a new entity and advertised on a digital site listing all national service programs and positions. The site will effectively serve as a combination of Monster.com and Kickstarter—that is, it will make it easy for young people to apply for a wide variety of national service positions, while also enabling corporate and other sources of support for such service opportunities. The system will take advantage of technology, social networks, and civil society to democratize and modernize national service.

The challenges and opportunities facing this country are big. And we need bold solutions to deal with them. For more than eighty years, national service programs have shown that they can strengthen communities, transform service participants, and build the social capital we need to make the American Dream a reality for all. Millennials are clamoring to serve their country, and such service could boost their economic mobility in a tough economy. We should give them that chance.

To read more from our November/December 2013 cover package on opportunity in America, click here.

John M. Bridgeland and Alan Khazei are, respectively, CEO of Civic Enterprises, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush and a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions under President Barack Obama; and CEO of the Action Tank and cofounder of City Year. They are co-chairs of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.

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