Melissa Bass, The Politics and Civics of National Service

Melissa Bass has published The Politics and Civics of National Service: Lessons from the Civilian Conversation Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2013). This book originated with a CIRCLE grant and two CIRCLE Working Papers (numbers 11 and 12). It is a great achievement and truly essential reading for anyone who is interested in civilian national service as an instrument for social reform, civic education, or strengthening communities.

Because Bass describes three federal service initiatives that originated, respectively, in the Depression, the 1960s, and the 1980s, her story also provides an excellent opportunity to think about broader changes in the definition of “citizenship,” the aims of government, prevailing ideas about education, poverty, youth development, and the environment, and the relationship between state and market. Although the Civilian Conservation Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps share certain common features, the differences are perhaps more illuminating. No one in 1932 would have thought to promote “social entrepreneurship” with competitive grants to NGOs that place many of their volunteers in white collar nonprofit jobs. No one today would envision housing young men in racially segregated federal work camps to study American ideals while building dams and laying telephone lines.

The interest of the book is not merely historical or analytical. To revive ideals of active, responsible, and inclusive citizenship requires supportive institutions and policies. When designing these policies, we must be attentive not only to how they may affect their participants and beneficiaries, but also to how they will fit into–or alter–the broader political system. Most policies have feedback loops, either strengthening or undermining themselves over time. The CCC, for instance, grew to almost 100 times the maximum size of VISTA because it was understood as a jobs program in the midst of an unemployment crisis. But it was quickly killed when the economic situation changed. In contrast, AmeriCorps’ decentralized model creates a network of grantees that lobby for the program’s preservation–but the grantees are far too small and weak to expand it much. (Despite its breadth and diversity, AmeriCorps remains one fifth the size of the CCC in a much bigger country.) Michael Sandel once called for a “political economy of citizenship.” Anyone who takes up his challenge should pay serious attention to the lessons of Melissa Bass’s book.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.