This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
I had the great honor of working one summer at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, doing conservation work and helping Boy Scouts get the experience I had in my youth. During those weeks of hacking trails out of mountainsides and moving stumps and boulders off the tread, I reflected that eight decades ago, young men like me were doing this kind of work not just for the heck of it, but because the country was in economic crisis.
Through the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federal government under Franklin D. Roosevelt was trying to offer Americans a way out of the cycle of poverty and despair and into community and useful service during the depths of the Great Depression. The legacy of the CCC is still all around us, in our national parks and forests and the walls and cabins built by those young men. It also lives on in the various conservation-oriented service programs run by local and state governments and civic organizations.
Nobody seems to see national service as an intrinsically bad thing, at least in principle. Many even think it could be a positively good thing. But for the most part, today’s national service proposals tend either to be meager expansions of the current model exemplified by AmeriCorps and Teach for America, or unworkable mandatory and universal plans that might hurt the poor more than they would help America. As Michael Lind points out: “The working-class majority is hard-pressed enough without being required to perform unpaid labor. But it might not hurt if every professor, opinion journalist, and foundation expert… had to spend a year or two working in a shopping mall, hotel, hospital, or warehouse.”
Yet, the idea of national service continues to entrance us, as evidenced by the occasional paeans to it made by presidential aspirants. One of these paeans, by 2020 presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is typical of the field.
“A New Call to Service” is straightforward enough. It involves a commitment to funding 250,000 paid service fellowships every year (more than tripling the current 75,000 AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other fellowships.) It would both diversify and sweeten the deal, promoting out-of-home-state service assignments and offering student-loan forgiveness options. It would create a “Chief Service Officer” role for the National Security Council and Domestic Policy Council. It would create specialized service corps for environmental protection, public health, and “intergenerational service.”
The proposal is not bad for what it is — an imaginative upscaling of the existing U.S. national service system, geared to expand opportunities for national service to as many young Americans as possible without a one-size-fits all mandatory requirement. But communitarian conservatives should think about national service more creatively and boldly still.
Beyond the Individual
A New Call to Service is written in a way that suggests that service is primarily useful as an individual advancement opportunity. Although it certainly can be that, service can also be thought of as a means of growing social capital — of building community —in these socially fragmented times.
The communitarian benefits of widespread national service are easy enough to discern. Given that loneliness and atomization are pervasive social problems, putting people through the bonding experiences of challenging work with strangers offers more opportunities to find real and genuine human contact. In many regions across the country, people do not feel connected to their local communities. Working in one’s own community — whether in conservation or poverty relief or disaster response or emergency health care or education — creates opportunities to help one’s neighbors and to gain new skills. But it also helps to develop relationships and a sense of belonging.
What’s more, participation in service programs might have the happy side-effect of inculcating civic virtues that are key to democracy. For instance, service can help inexperienced young Americans to better empathize with their fellow Americans across socio-economic or other divides; whet their appetites for further public service; or provide opportunities to practice leadership and problem-solving skills that might otherwise be unavailable to them.
This social capital-focused national service concept should be governed by a few principles.
First, national service should be defined broadly so as to include both classic year-long, full-time programs and local, part-time programs with only stipend benefits. The vast majority of new national service participants would very likely fall into this second category.
Second, there should be some permanent management of this national service program in the federal government, up to and including the creation of a new federal agency or even a new federal department to coordinate the activities of existing programs across the federal government and at the state, local, and nonprofit levels.
Third, while the federal government should promote and coordinate this project at a national level, many or most of its programs should be managed at more local levels of government. National service programs must always be locally driven.
Fourth, the federal government should partner closely with civil-society organizations in the nonprofit sector that are already doing this work. Financial aid and friendly regulatory streamlining could help them expand their work to larger majorities of American youth.
The best argument against universal compulsory national service is the one offered by Lind, that most working Americans have a tough enough time as it, without compulsory unpaid labor. But this is why national service must not be limited to the kinds of full-time, multi-year, fully paid commitments offered by AmeriCorps and Teach for America.
How many young Americans either want to or can really afford to take a year or more out of their lives after high school or college graduation to do service work for low wages, rather than continuing their educations or jump-starting their careers? Fortunately, plenty are willing and able, as evidenced by the fact that current funding levels don’t allow our national service programs to admit everyone who applies. But would a majority of American young adults be interested? Moreover, would the most at-risk young adults — those who could benefit most from programs like this — even be likely to apply?
When you’re working for wages and the cost of living keeps rising, the noble ideal of service might seem less realistic, especially when it involves long-term work for little pay. That said, American young adults do a lot of volunteering on a part-time basis, largely for local charitable and nonprofit organizations. This bubbling reservoir of volunteerism should be tapped. Opening up incentives for even more young adults to volunteer or work part-time for these kinds of local organizations could help expand national service participation dramatically. National service ought to be understood as including part-time volunteer work with a variety of public-interest civic organizations. And, in appropriate circumstances, it should include paid work, to incentivize participation and continuance as well as to demonstrate the nation’s commitment to expanding service opportunities.
The goal of a coordinated national service program should not merely be to increase the number of Americans doing full-time service, as important as traditional models like AmeriCorps and the California Conservation Corps are. Instead, a national service program should aim to increase exponentially the number of Americans working in national service organizations for any amount of time, including both full-time and part-time work. The goal should be to maximize the total man-hours conducted by American young adults in any given year.
A New Federal Agency
There are various agencies within the United States government that already provide and manage opportunities for national service — including the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Peace Corps, and the U.S. Forest Service Job Corps, among many others. For this reason alone, it makes sense to establish a coordinative umbrella agency. But because a multitude of state-level service agencies (such as the California Conservation Corps) and nationally chartered nonprofit organizations (such as the Red Cross) would also be participating in this national project, a more muscular and effective agency capable of working across various bureaucratic boundaries is a must. Given the sheer number of players, it would be important to ensure that this agency does not fall into the dysfunctions that beset the early Department of Homeland Security.
This national service agency would serve three main roles: (1) it would coordinate projects between all member governments and organizations; (2) it would dispense funds and expertise to member governments and organizations; and (3) perhaps most importantly, it would promote the work of national service to the American public and highlight the central role that service can play in individual life and American public life.
Local Projects and Initiatives
Nevertheless, to the degree possible, new national service projects should be coordinated at local, municipal, county, and regional levels. And initiative for projects — and general guidance for organizational management — should come from the local levels as well.
There are plenty of reasons to prefer localism for the administration of national service projects. The most obvious reason is that local governments tend to be more attuned to the specific problems of their localities than civil servants in Washington D.C. ever can be, so it makes managerial sense to decentralize administration. But the primary reason to prefer localism is community investment. If part of the mandate for a national service program is to help American young adults have more connectivity and dedication to their communities of residence, it follows that the primary opportunities for service projects should be in these communities as well. People working part-time, in particular, are more likely to be capable of balancing service work with their professional and social obligations, if their service opportunities are in the same area in which they live.
There are a variety of types of service work that could be done through a decentralized, part-time national service program, thanks to the diversity of America and its natural and social landscape. National service participants could: do conservation work and habitat restoration; work in public education in underserved communities; form disaster-response platoons to assist in responses to hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters; construct basic public works like parks, roadways, and bridges; participate in emergency health clinics and search-and-rescue teams; or serve the mentally ill and the homeless. A unifying theme, however, is that national service programs should be public-interest projects that would otherwise go undone. And, of course, local authorities typically have better understandings of what needs to be done than national ones.
A side benefit of such part-time, decentralized national service is that it could help with the old national cause of “preparedness.” While that term’s roots are in Progressive Era military readiness levels, it can also be applied to the public’s general ability to meet non-military emergencies. In particular, broader participation in FEMA or Red Cross-like crisis response operations could help America develop a robust and hyper-localized capacity for disaster preparedness, and help save lives and ease the recovery for everything from natural disasters to terrorist attacks to public unrest. A similar preparedness capacity could be useful to develop in public health.
Civil Society Preeminence
It should be noted that currently there are many nonprofit civic organizations that mobilize, train, and employ volunteers and part-time workers in such public-interest projects. The American Red Cross and any number of religious charities do disaster relief and medical services; the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy do conservation and trail maintenance work on their eponymous national scenic trails; there are lots of educational associations, public-health associations, and local service clubs that do good work in their own fields as well. Sometimes these groups are well-funded; often times they are not.
A key to this new national service administration’s flexibility and breadth would be its aggressive courting of public-interest nonprofits of any size that provide service opportunities for young adults. The aim would be to establish a broad network of service organizations that could coordinate and pool resources and projects. The federal side of this would be general vision-setting, significant funding assistance, and administrative help; the nonprofit side would be program administration, recruiting, and groundwork.
In fact, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that manages AmeriCorps and various other federal service programs, operates this way to some degree already. But the civil society-centric approach would work to forge even deeper institutional partnerships. A policy analogue might be the New Deal’s National Recovery Administration, which partnered with businesses, unions, agencies, and other stakeholders in public-interest-oriented economic management and gave participating organizations the “Blue Eagle” sign and associated benefits. A new national service administration might partner with local governments, nonprofit service organizations, universities, and local charities in formulating new projects for national service participation, and bestow each with a similar symbol and set of benefits.
The preeminence of civil society actors over bureaucratic actors would lend an element of flexibility and efficiency to individual projects. Civil society groups have natural levels of expertise and experience in their particular project areas that the federal government would be wise to take advantage of. Many of them also have solid reputations and broad networks of activists and volunteers. If providing more opportunities for service work to young Americans is partly a matter of sheer scale, then civil-society partnerships offer an effective way to get there.
Another Call to Service?
Done properly, the organization and establishment of a national service coordination agency in the federal government could help organize national and local responses to a variety of civic issues in the 21st century. Most important, it would give hundreds of thousands or even millions of young Americans the opportunity to develop closer connections to their fellow citizens and their civil and governmental institutions.
The pluralistic vision of this program — local, but with national support; part-time, but compensated; civic and voluntary, but supported by the federal government — is quintessentially American. In mixing different sectors of the American government and society, in reforming our current national service system along communitarian lines, in harnessing the powers of civic engagement and public authority to give lost and lonely Americans more opportunities to contribute to the common good, national service can help to rebuild the fraying American social fabric starting at the local level.
A panacea for the loneliness and polarization affecting Americans in the 21st century? No. But a small way for young Americans to serve their communities and their country, and find meaning in the mundane? Why not?
Luke Nathan Phillips is editor of The Conversation, the opinion page of the national civic organization Better Angels.