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At various times in American history, public service and private effort went arm in arm. After Pearl Harbor, Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam exhorted people to help the war effort, and Americans responded. But since F.D.R., and especially since J.F.K.'s launching of the Peace Corps, national service has been seen by some as a Democratic or liberal idea. In the '90s, Newt Gingrich argued that the rise of big government programs robbed people of their initiative to volunteer. After Bill Clinton signed the bill to create AmeriCorps in 1993, then Senator John Ashcroft called it "welfare for the well-to-do."
But these days there is a growing consensus on Capitol Hill that the private and public spheres can be linked. Democrats understand the need to support programs outside of government; Republicans understand that voluntary programs can be helped by government. In his first State of the Union address after 9/11, President George W. Bush called for Americans to give 4,000 hours of service and established the USA Freedom Corps. One of the early critics of AmeriCorps, John McCain, has since become a devout supporter. "National service is an issue that has been largely identified with the Democratic Party and the left of the political spectrum," McCain wrote in a 2001 Washington Monthly essay. "That is unfortunate, because duty, honor and country are values that transcend ideology...National service is a crucial means of making our patriotism real, to the benefit of both ourselves and our country."
It may seem like a strange moment to make the case for national service for young Americans when so many are already doing so much. Young men and women have made their patriotism all too real by volunteering to fight two wars on foreign soil. But we have battlefields in America, too particularly in education and health care and the commitment of soldiers abroad has left others yearning to make a parallel commitment here at home.
So what would a plan for universal national service look like? It would be voluntary, not mandatory. Americans don't like to be told what they have to do; many have argued that requiring service drains the gift of its virtue. It would be based on carrots, not sticks "doing well by doing good," as Benjamin Franklin, the true father of civic engagement, put it. So here is a 10-point plan for universal national service. The ideas here are a mixture of suggestions already made, revised versions of other proposals and a few new wrinkles.
1. Create a National-Service Baby Bond
Every time an American baby is born, the Federal Government would invest $5,000 in that child's name in a 529-type fund the kind many Americans are already using for college savings. At a rate of return of 7% the historic return for equities that money would total roughly $19,000 by the time that baby reaches age 20. That money could be accessed between the ages of 18 and 25 on one condition: that he or she commits to at least one year of national or military service. Like the old GI Bill, the money must be used to fund education, start a business or make a down payment on a home. The bond would preserve the voluntary nature of the service but offer a strong incentive for young people to sign up for it. Says City Year CEO and co-founder Michael Brown: "It's a new kind of government philosophy about reciprocity. If you invest in your country, your country will invest in you."
2. Make National Service a Cabinet-Level Department
Right now, the Corporation for National and Community Service created in 1993 to manage AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America is a small, independent federal agency. Find a catchier name, streamline its responsibilities and bring it up to Cabinet level. This would show that the new President means business when it comes to national service and would recognize that service is integral to how America thinks of itself and how the President thinks of America. And don't appoint a gray bureaucrat to this job; make it someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mike Bloomberg, who would capture the imagination of the public. In fact, the next President whatever party should set a goal to enlist at least 1 million Americans annually in national service by the year 2016.
3. Expand Existing National-Service Programs Like AmeriCorps and the National Senior Volunteer Corps
Since 1994, 500,000 people have gone through AmeriCorps programs tutoring and teaching in urban schools; managing after-school programs; cleaning up playgrounds, schools and parks; and caring for the elderly. After Katrina, AmeriCorps participants descended on the Gulf Coast within 24 hours and have since contributed more than 3 million hours of service. AmeriCorps members earn a small stipend for their volunteering and receive education awards of up to $4,725 per year. Right now, says David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, "AmeriCorps is the best-kept secret in America." But under this national-service proposal, the program would more than triple in size, from 75,000 members each year to approximately 250,000. "We don't need to reinvent this nascent infrastructure," says Brown. "We need to take it to scale."
Presently, AmeriCorps is a catch-all initiative for a variety of different programs. Here are four new branded corps and other programs that could come under the new Department of National Service.
4. Create an Education Corps
The idea here is to create a cadre of tutors, teachers and volunteers who can help the 38% of fourth-graders who can't read at a basic level. The members of the Education Corps would also lead after-school programs for the 14 million students a quarter of all school-age kids who do not have a supervised activity between 3 and 6 p.m. on schooldays. Studies show that students who spend no time in after-school programs are almost 50% more likely to have used drugs and 37% more likely to become teen parents than students who spend one to four hours a week in an extracurricular activity. The Corps members would also focus on curbing America's dropout epidemic. Right now, 50% of the dropouts come from 15% of the high schools in the U.S., most of them located in high-poverty city neighborhoods and throughout the South. The Education Corps would focus on those troubled school districts.
5. Institute a Summer of Service
For many teenagers, the summer between middle school and high school is an awkward time. They're too young to get a real job and too old to be babysat. Well-to-do families can afford summer camps and exotic learning opportunities, but they're a minority. Shirley Sagawa, an expert on youth policy and an architect of the AmeriCorps legislation, is proposing a Summer of Service. One hundred thousand students would volunteer for organizations like City Year, a national volunteering program and think tank, or Citizen Schools, which organizes after-school activities for middle schoolers, and run summer programs for younger students in exchange for a $500 college scholarship. Senators Christopher Dodd (Democrat, Conn.) and Thad Cochran (Republican, Miss.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (Democrat, Conn.) have sponsored a bill that would support a service "rite of passage" for students before they begin high school.