October 2, 2007
By Ben Adler
On a recent sunny day in a park near the Capitol, 79 youths from across the country clapped to cheerleader-style chants as they shouted out descriptions of their particular brand of national volunteer service.
The 17-to-24-year-olds, outfitted in crisp matching uniforms of red jackets, khaki pants and boots, were kicking off a year of national service with City Year Washington, D.C., during which the new recruits will work on projects ranging from HIV prevention to teaching inner-city kids how to read.
As official Washington slogs through fights over funding for the Iraq war and children’s health insurance, support for the expansion of national service programs like City Year is growing both inside and outside government.
AmeriCorps is the largest federal service program, with 70,000 volunteers a year and more than 500,000 alumni since it began in 1994.Photo: John Shinkle
Presidential candidates and members of Congress alike are putting out proposals, the media have picked up the call, and think tanks that rarely agree are partnering to drum up support.
“There’s an interesting consensus on both sides of the aisle [on the value of service],” said Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine, who recently laid out the case for national service in a cover story. “There’s a hunger among most people in America for something like this. The national mood made it right.”
Most national service programs offer a stipend and an educational award to recent college graduates for a variety of work projects, from teaching in an inner-city school to rebuilding houses in post-Katrina New Orleans.
AmeriCorps, an umbrella organization of hundreds of local participating programs, is the largest federal program, with 70,000 volunteers a year and more than 500,000 alumni since it began in 1994.
On the presidential campaign trail, the most attention-grabbing national service proposal is Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd’s pledge to expand AmeriCorps tenfold, so it would accommodate up to a million volunteers a year.
Dodd comes by his passion for service honestly, having been a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s and in the Army National Guard during the 1970s.
His belief in the transformative personal effect of service led Dodd to introduce a bill in Congress with Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) — normally one of his political opponents — and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) to engage students in a “summer of service” between eighth and ninth grades.
Kaya Henderson, deputy chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, is a national service alum who, like Dodd, talks about the powerful impact that she believes participating can have on someone.
She started working in public schools as a Teach for America corps member from 1992 to 1994. (Teach for America places recent college graduates in under-resourced public schools for two years.)
Henderson said the program not only helps alleviate the staffing shortages in poor school districts but exposes relatively privileged college graduates to the challenges facing lower-income youth.
Other Democratic presidential candidates besides Dodd have made an issue of national service.
As part of his education platform, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards recently proposed the creation of a “GreenCorps” subset of AmeriCorps to battle global climate change.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) to create a “West Point for public service.”
The academy would offer a free four-year undergraduate education in exchange for a five-year commitment to public service.
A few Republican presidential candidates, too, have touted national service.
Although he hasn’t focused on it in the campaign, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney served on the board of City Year, which started in Boston.
And Sen. John McCain of Arizona has long extolled the virtues of service. And conservative pundits, most notably The New York Times’ David Brooks, have written articles promoting national service.
Unusual coalitions are also promoting national service. Recently, the progressive Center for American Progress think tank in Washington co-sponsored an event with the nonpartisan advocacy organization Voices for National Service and the conservative Hudson Institute.
One panel featured business executives who embrace service programs and support them financially; they praised the work force preparation that service can provide.
Jason Phillips, 28, a student at Penn State, York campus, who spoke at the Washington seminar, said he particularly appreciated its job-training benefits and financial support.
Phillips works for the Crispus Attucks Early Learning Center in York, Pa., where he started as an AmeriCorps intern.
A human development and family studies major in college, Phillips said that AmeriCorps can help people who, like him, were unable to get a job after high school.
The educational award — money that can be used to pay for undergraduate or graduate school costs, or to retire college loans — is especially valuable to people of modest means, he said.
Meanwhile, the opposition to national service — historically a conservative objection to getting the government involved in the private act of volunteering — has withered in recent years as President Bush has slightly expanded AmeriCorps.
No one better embodies that shift than McCain, who, like most Republicans in Congress at the time, opposed President Bill Clinton’s proposal to create AmeriCorps.
He has since become an ardent supporter of the program, teaming with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) in 2003 to persuade President Bush not to cut funding for it.
William Schambra, director of Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, who helped organize the recent Washington event, says that while conservatives once worried that government-funded volunteerism would replace private charity, research has shown that it usually bolsters existing volunteer efforts.
“Often the sole full-time person at a local nonprofit is from AmeriCorps,” Schambra said. “They keep track of volunteer efforts.”
He also noted that faith-based organizations can receive volunteers through national service programs, which appeals to social conservatives.
Of course, opposition remains to government funding for national service programs.
“I think the idea of government-mandated or paid volunteerism is an oxymoron,” said Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.
He also worries that programs may favor nonprofits of one political stripe over another.
Funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps and related programs, is likely to be reauthorized by this Congress.
It may also encompass some expansions of national service, such as a scaled-down version of the “summer of service” proposal.
AnnMaura Connolly, senior vice president of global initiatives and strategic partnerships for City Year, doubts it will encounter much opposition, noting that past concerns about it have largely died.
“The issues of old are of old,” she said. “And it’s a new day now for national service.”
Disclosure: Ben Adler was previously employed by the Center for American Progress as editor of campusprogress.org, a daily online youth-oriented political and cultural magazine.