More Than Ever, National Service Merits Attention

November 11, 2001 | By Jane R. Eisner

A decade ago, the idea of a national-service movement was generally derided as an idealist, feel-good exercise that would never be taken seriously.

Now, national service is all the buzz in Washington. Last week, it was the subject of bipartisan legislation introduced in Congress, and it earned a major mention in President Bush’s address to the nation.

A decade ago, Paul Shoe was a kid in Frankford who would eventually spend 18 months in a juvenile-delinquency facility. Now Shoe, who just turned 20, has completed his GED and is working in a Philadelphia elementary school with an enthusiastic team from City Year, a service-and-leadership development program.

The connection between these two turnaround stories should be obvious.

The success of the Paul Shoes of America is proof-positive that well-managed, full-time service programs can benefit participant and recipient alike.

Pennsylvania’s own Sen. Rick Santorum once famously chided such government-funded initiatives as nothing more than paying someone to pick up trash and sing “‘Kumbaya’ around a campfire.” Santorum recently met with Paul Shoe and other City Year corps members, and all he sang was their praises.

It is time to capitalize on this momentous turnaround this rare alignment of post-Sept. 11 patriotic spirit, civic need and political expediency.

In other words, it is time to take national service very, very seriously.

More seriously than President Bush’s well-intentioned but limited steps and statements. More seriously even than the fine legislation just introduced by Sens. Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.) to expand AmeriCorps and other service opportunities.

I’d even argue that a year of national service—in military or civilian work—ought to be compulsory for each American finishing high school or college, but I’m also a realist. Such a mandate, no matter how worthy and patriotic, would never be approved. This nation is allergic to requirements.

Besides, as Bayh said in an interview last week, “I want people to volunteer for America not because they have to but because they want to.”

So instead we should use every tactic available to entice young people to knit this into their expectations, to make it an accepted and even desirable rite of passage. One of City Year’s goals is to reach the moment when the universal question will be: Where am I going to do my year of service?

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The ground is fertile. Children as young as elementary school students are volunteering far more than their parents ever did. From 1984 to 1999, the share of high schools offering any kind of community-service program grew from 27 percent to 83 percent. Two-thirds of all public schools at all grades now have students engaged in community work.

As Neil Howe and William Strauss document in Millennials Rising, “A new Millennial service ethic is emerging.” Built around notions of collegial action, support for civic institutions, and the tangible doing of good deeds, this ethic is ripe for exploitation.

So, frankly, is the economy. Those six-figure jobs on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley are no longer a guaranteed inheritance for college grads. The comparative income loss of a year of service suddenly seems reasonable. AmeriCorps members, for instance, receive a living stipend and $4,725 toward college expenses.

The pay is paltry, but significant. I do not quarrel with Bush’s exhortation last week that each American “become a September the 11th volunteer.” But volunteering in a homeless shelter or a town watch ought to be a routine act of citizenship. A year of national service is akin to work and should be regarded as such, with at least a minimum stipend to cover living expenses. We pay soldiers, don’t we?

Yes, this will be costly. So is sending Green Berets to Afghanistan. That is defense; national service is offense. Even someone who doesn’t follow football knows that you need both to win a game. Or a war.

Besides, government money can be leveraged with corporate and private contributions to actually deliver services more cost-effectively. One provision of the Bayh-McCain bill would expand AmeriCorps members to 250,000 by 2010 and designate half the increased personnel to Homeland Security or public safety—two new obligations that most state and local governments cannot fund on their own.

The greatest concern about creating a national-service movement should not be expenses, but management. The assignments need to be meaningful, the outcomes measurable, the accountability clear.

That is the only way to assure success. Paul Shoe wasn’t just dropped cold into McKinley Elementary School and told to help teach. He’s part of a 10-member City Year team, overseen by an experienced, on-site project manager.

Effective national service is, well, work. It’s not for dabblers.

A century ago, William James described national service as the “moral equivalent of war.” Before Sept. 11, that analogy might have sounded silly. Now it has never seemed more apt.