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Too often, modern politicians have viewed national service as a lovely little “worthwhile program,” certainly a swell idea but not something that trumps the critical business of saving the economy.
That’s the wrong way of looking at it.
First, the current economic collapse affects not only the unemployed auto-worker but his 21-year old daughter just out of college and unable to find a job. The youth unemployment rate is now more than 20%. In hard times, applications to full-time community service programs increase, as other post-college options whither. Already, two out of three people who want to serve in AmeriCorps are being turned away from full time domestic service programs.
Second, these service workers can be a critical part of meeting Obama’s recovery goals. National service members can work on permanent and cost effective national improvements such as energy efficiency or improving schools.
Most important, a national service program could help achieve another Obama campaign pledge that otherwise may prove too vague and ephemeral. He’s talked about building bridges among Americans. That’s nice but he can’t do that just through speeches.
Common action breaks down barriers better than talk. Conservative churchgoers and secular liberals end up respecting the sincerity of each other’s beliefs when they work together to feed the hungry. Race relations improve more when black, white and brown together save a drowning city than when they attend sensitivity workshops. Interfaith dialogue is less effective than interfaith house-building. And those from military families and those raised by, say, environmental activists will find mutual respect by working together to care for veterans or solve other critical problems.
In fact, the call for service shouldn’t be limited to AmeriCorps. Imagine, for the first time ever, a national recruitment drive for all forms of service. Unlike past efforts, this significant recruitment effort – including YouTube videos, Facebook applications, mobile phones etc — should call people to serve in the military, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, senior corps, as well as private or faith-based service programs such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
Oh, and by the standards of this economic recovery package, national service is dirt cheap. According to press reports, the economic recovery will cost around $800 billion and create 3 million jobs. By contrast, fielding a full-time AmeriCorps member costs the government somewhere between $11,000-$20,000 including an $4,725 educational scholarship, substantially cheaper than the infrastructure jobs.
So for a miniscule fraction of the recovery plan, we could field roughly 250,000 national service corps members (what Obama promised to do in the campaign, by the way). Add a few billion more, and wrap together military, overseas and private service, and Uncle Sam could finally make a simple, historic, transformative statement: “anyone who wants to serve their country or community in full time service – and then earn money for education – can do so.”
This idea may not seem as concrete as a bridge project but in its own way it could be even more durable.