Thursday, December 3, 2015

National service -- an idea whose time has come, again -- Dec. 3, 2015 column


After 9/11, a patriotic impulse swept the United States. Flags waved on every corner and everybody wanted to do something to fight terrorism. But not everyone wanted to, or could, volunteer for the military.

President George W. Bush urged people to go to Disneyland. And so the moment was wasted.

Today, less than 1 percent of Americans serves in the military. Over the last 14 years, we have grown increasingly disconnected from one other and more distrustful of government. Many lament our lack of civility and poisonous politics but feel powerless to change anything. 

Fewer and fewer experiences unite us as Americans. Even the occasions that many people share – like donating to a good cause on Giving Tuesday – we do alone.

But there’s hope. While some problems, like the horrifying gun violence we saw in California on Wednesday, seem intractable, bipartisan support is coalescing around a way that could bring us together: voluntary national service.

The Aspen Institute Franklin Project is promoting the idea that every American 18 to 28 should have the opportunity to spend a year in full time, fully paid public service in an area such as health, poverty, conservation or education.

The project envisions that a million young people would participate by 2023. The year of service would become a cultural expectation and rite of passage, much as serving in the military once was. National service would not be mandated but highly encouraged, perhaps with tuition forgiveness, a new G.I. bill and other perks.

“There’s something about service that’s essential to citizenship,” retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and chairman of the Franklin Project, said at a panel discussion Monday at the Aspen Institute in Washington. “It’s what defines a nation.”

World War II put 16 million Americans in uniform, but everybody was asked to do something. National service would create alumni similarly invested in the country’s future, McChrystal said. 

The Franklin Project’s blue-ribbon Leadership Council includes former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, NAACP former president Benjamin Jealous, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former NBC News anchor and author Tom Brokaw. Also, Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe and College of William and Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III.

They’re hoping to jumpstart national service. Since John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, presidents have tried to expand national service. In 2008, both presidential candidates -- Barack Obama and John McCain – promised to make national service a priority.

President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009, proclaiming a “new era of service.” The law was supposed to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 individuals. AmeriCorps members are neither volunteers nor employees. They receive stipends to cover living expenses, health insurance, child care and, upon completion of their term of service, education grants.

Some conservatives oppose “paid volunteerism,” and Congress never provided funding for the expansion. The Franklin Project is looking to enlist the private sector to pay for public service opportunities.

President Obama last year started Employers of National Service which links AmeriCorps and Peace Corps alumni with employers. More than 150 companies, nonprofits, public agencies and cities, including Philadelphia and Nashville, have signed on to give alumni a boost in recruitment, hiring and promotions.

Virginia became the first state Employer of National Service in January.  State agencies are directed to recruit AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps alumni and to consider public service as part of the hiring process.

On the 2016 presidential campaign trail, Hillary Clinton promises to expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 individuals by 2017 and would allow those who commit to service to graduate from in-state colleges debt-free. Other candidates in both parties support expanding national service to varying degrees.   

Many more young people want to serve than can currently be accommodated. About half a million people apply for the 75,000 AmeriCorps slots. This year, more than 44,100 people, most of them recent college graduates, applied for 4,000 Teach for America jobs.  

Some high schools and colleges require public service for graduation. Arizona State University opened a Public Service Academy this fall that is believed to be the first undergraduate program in the country similar to ROTC for students who want to work in the volunteer sector.

Young Americans are yearning to serve their country. Let’s give them the chance – and build stronger communities and a more robust citizenry in the process. We can’t afford to waste another moment.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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