national service passes

Today, Congress passed the GIVE Act, also known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will expand AmeriCorps by 170,000 positions and direct much of the service toward three national priorities: reducing the high school dropout rate, conserving energy, and providing health care to needy people. Contrary to some rumors floating around the rightward reaches of the blogosphere,* the program is completely voluntary and will, I’m sure, have to turn away most of its eager applicants. (Also, it funds independent nonprofits that provide service opportunities; it’s not really a national corps.) My full analysis is here.

The Act represents the biggest expansion of civilian service since the New Deal. In a way, the story of “service” has been continuous since the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. Its thread passes from the CCC to the Peace Corps, VISTA, the Points of Light Foundation, AmeriCorps, and USA Service Corps.

But I think the Kennedy Act represents a major milestone for a particular movement that arose in the 1980s to promote voluntary, educational service opportunities for young people. The Campus Opportunity Outreach League or COOL was founded in 1984, Campus Compact in 1985, Youth Service America in 1986, City Year in 1988, and YouthBuild USA in 1990. These groups and their supporters helped make voluntary national service a popular issue and achieved the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, which launched AmeriCorps. But after that launch, AmeriCorps always had to struggle with declining resources. The Kennedy Act puts it back on a growth path. Many of the leaders of the effort to pass it are veterans of the 1992-1993 struggle.

The immediate next step for the movement is to get the Act fully funded, and then help to implement it well so that the volunteers really learn and make a difference on the three important problems. That is a tall order by itself.

Unfortunately, the task is bigger still. As I’ve argued before, no national service bill can engage most Americans in productive civic work. AmeriCorps is open to citizens of all ages, but most volunteers will be young adults who can take a year for educational service or k-12 students who will benefit from the service-learning provisions. We must treat the Kennedy Act as a positive step and a momentum-builder, but not as an adequate way to fulfill the President’s pledge to make “service and active citizenship” a “central cause” of his administration.

*A Google search will reveal lots of comments that equate the bill with the Hitler Youth or with various Communist organizations. (Conflating Nazism with Communism seems to be a standard trope on the right.) In fact, if you search for “Obama active citizenship,” most of the hits will be right-wing responses that mention Hitler. This reaction is evidence of profound distrust for Democrats and for the federal government in some quarters. Moderate Republicans tend to like voluntary national service because of its moral orientation and its suggestion that citizens–not the state–can address public problems. But if you start with the assumption that federal authorities and Democrats want to steal all your rights, then a national service program for youth must indeed sound creepy. First big rallies, then a massive crowd on the National Mall shouting “O-BAM-a,” then the government buys banks and car companies, and finally a “national service” bill passes. It’s all enough to frighten you–if you start out as profoundly disaffected and suspicious. Such a reaction would be easy to mock, but I recommend taking the underlying fear quite seriously.

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