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September 10, 2013 12:12 PM A New Moment for National Service?

By Melissa Bass

In 1966, in the midst of a war that was demanding the ultimate sacrifice from many young people and nothing from far more, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called for “every young person to give two years of service to his country,” either in a civilian or military capacity. Although the need for civilian service was well documented and the idea of universal service was popular, its advocates had few resources to make it a reality. Last year, with less than one-half of one percent of Americans serving in our war-time military, retired General Stanley McChrystal issued a similar call.

With all that has changed over the past half century, can McChrystal’s call succeed? It certainly stands a far better chance. Today’s advocates for universal national service are better positioned in nearly every way than their 1960s counterparts. As in the 1960s, there is ample evidence documenting the need for large-scale, intensive civilian service work. Even more than in the 1960s, there is ample evidence that Americans are eager to fill a large-scale program: over a recent two year period the country’s main existing civilian national service program, AmeriCorps, turned down over one million applicants due to a lack of spots. As in the 1960s, there is evidence of public support, with 80 percent of registered voters supporting - at least in principle - an expansive system of year-long, full-time, modestly paid voluntary national service. Finally, much more than in the 1960s, there is strong evidence that national service generates economic benefits far in excess of its cost and that the cost-benefit ratio improves as programs grow.

At the same time, opposition to national service has changed: in the 1960s, most critics were skeptical that universal service could work; today many opponents are convinced that universal service is wrong and are worried that it possibly could work. It’s a different fight.

In 1966, the Peace Corps was five years old and had 14,000 volunteers. VISTA, the “domestic Peace Corps,” was only a year old and had fewer than 3,000 volunteers. State-based and non-governmental service programs were few and far smaller. The National Service Secretariat, the country’s principal national service advocacy group, was also small and brand new. In short, policymakers and advocates had limited policy design knowledge, modest administrative practice, little experience raising private funds, not much infrastructure upon which to build, and few alumni, program beneficiaries, or other organized groups ready to be mobilized.

As a result of the last two decades of national service policymaking, especially related to the AmeriCorps program, none of these drawbacks hold today. This is clearly seen in the work of the Franklin Project, the Aspen Institute-sponsored organizing effort sparked by McChrystal’s comments. The project’s goal is for the U.S. to create a voluntary national service system that encourages all young adults to serve in the military or civilian sector, with at least one million young adults engaged in civilian service full-time for one year.

The Franklin Project’s action plan enlarges existing programs, like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, and expands existing partnerships between the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), federal and state agencies, and the non-profit and private sectors, while creating new programs based on these models. Advocates have an infrastructure on which to build, and in many cases Franklin Project leaders - like City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, former CNCS CEO Harris Wofford, and former White House Domestic Policy Advisor John Bridgeland - helped to build it.

Still, to reach its goal of filling at least one million full-time service positions, many more non-profits and other organizations will need to create positions that are outside of the existing national service structure, but which are still integrated with it, to create a new, larger system.

To do so, the Franklin Project architects envision a process whereby organizations’ service positions can be certified as official national service positions, affiliated with a nation-wide “Corps,” and made available on a searchable database to attract applicants - as long as the position meets certain criteria. While new, this process would draw on approval processes already used by organizations like Kiva, search technology like that used by Monster.com, fundraising strategies like those developed by Kickstarter, and feedback mechanisms like those used by Amazon. While ambitious, the “one million full-time server” goal is administratively and technologically feasible, far more so than any time in the past.

All of these developments work in favor of today’s national service advocates. Another development, political polarization - and specifically the increasing radicalization of conservative Republicans - works strongly against them.

Today’s national service advocates argue that political polarization makes national service even more necessary: it is one of the few institutions that can bring diverse young people together in shared work over time. However, polarization also makes achieving large-scale national service all the less likely. It isn’t just the case that national service advocates and conservatives see today’s high youth unemployment, increased social needs, and decreased local agency funding, and disagree on whether national service is a cost-effective response. It’s that funding aside, radical conservatives see national service as part of the problem, not the solution.

If a large-scale national service system is enacted in the near future, it will likely follow the model set by the Affordable Care Act, for better or for worse. As with the Affordable Care Act, Congress will pass it with little or no Republican votes, despite past Republican support. The public will support national service in principle and like the bill’s specific provisions, but come to fear whatever it is called as a program. It will be voluntary, but those most opposed, including elected officials, will say it is not. “Re-education camps” (Michele Bachman’s take on AmeriCorps) will be the national service version of “death panels.” And yet, hopefully, when the expansion gets underway and many more Americans are able to serve, with their communities and the country reaping the benefits of their work, universal, voluntary national service will succeed.

Melissa Bass is assistant professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi and the author of The Politics and Civics of National Service: Lessons from the Civilian Conservation Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps, published by the Brookings Institution Press.

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