Has the Time Finally Come for a Full-Scale National Service Program?

Most Republicans despise AmeriCorps because of its association with the Clintons. Photo: Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via G

One of the big debates that’s broken out during the coronavirus crisis is whether the abandonment of fiscal restraint by Republicans and a newfound sense of respect for “frontline workers,” who are often regarded as losers by the more privileged in times past, will produce a different climate for economic and social policy when the pandemic has ended. It’s hard to imagine that even an event so traumatic as this one can shake so many years of conservative and business-community hostility to the very concept of workers’ rights — other than the right not to join a union. My personal, if cynical, guess is that many Republicans will spend the first few years after the coronavirus demanding that we “pay for” today’s relatively generous public and private policies toward the marginally employed and actually unemployed instead of extending or institutionalizing them, particularly if Democrats are in charge of the federal government by then.

But are there alternative roads to greater social solidarity, offering some hope for those millennials who have begun adult life with stillborn economic prospects, that even Republicans might accept? David Brooks writes about one possibility that really would require a conversion experience on the right — a full-bore, living-wage version of a national service program:

There is now a vast army of young people ready and yearning to serve their country. There are college graduates emerging into a workplace that has few jobs for them. There are more high school graduates who suddenly can’t afford college. There are college students who don’t want to return to a college experience. This is a passionate, idealistic generation that sees the emergency, wants to serve those around them and groans to live up to this moment.

Suddenly there is a wealth of work for them to do: contact tracing, sanitizing public places, bringing food to the hungry, supporting the elderly, taking temperatures at public gathering spots, supporting local government agencies, tutoring elementary school students so they can make up for lost time …

The obvious imperative right now is to join workers with the work. It’s to expand national service programs to meet the urgencies of this moment.

National service has always been an attractive idea to those who belong to what was once called the “national greatness” wing of the conservative movement and the GOP. The last major Republican politician to embrace full-time, compensated national service was Brooks’s hero John McCain. But for most in that party, the term connoted bad things: from FDR’s “make work” Civilian Conservation Corps to Bill Clinton’s signature AmeriCorps.

Some civic-minded Republicans were comfortable with Poppy Bush’s toothless, noblesse oblige affection for non-compensated, occasional voluntarism (allegedly constituting “a thousand points of light”). But anything that might have represented a coordinated full-time public attack on ill-addressed social problems; a serious vehicle for obtaining higher education; or a dignified way for people to get a foot on the ladder of economic opportunity — that mostly inspired sneers on the right. Entrenched Republican hostility to national service became even more entrenched when Barack Obama called for a major expansion of AmeriCorps.

To his credit, Brooks isn’t promoting some mostly symbolic national service effort, giving middle-class kids something to do in the summer in exchange for living expenses and a small scholarship. It’s a lot closer to what we normally think of as a public-sector job-guarantee program connected to particular tasks associated with coronavirus relief and recovery. And he touts an actual piece of legislation while suggesting it needs to be taken to a larger scale:

There’s a good bill winding its way through the Senate … led by Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware …

As a young man, Coons launched one of the first AmeriCorps programs, leading 150 members in 15 cities who tutored students in inner-city schools. Later, he created another AmeriCorps program with a local volunteer fire department in Delaware. “It was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Coons told me.

His bill would double the current number of AmeriCorps volunteers in its first year, from 75,000 to 150,000. Then for years two and three it would double the number again, to 300,000. It would also increase AmeriCorps stipends, which are now as low as $15,000 a year, so the volunteers can have a living wage.

The Coons bill is an excellent start. But it needs to be bigger and bipartisan.

Brooks thinks a more decentralized arm of a national service initiative, reporting to state commissions and working in local nonprofits, could represent a distinctive Republican contribution to the cause. From many years of involvement in legislative and administrative efforts in this area, I have reason to suspect that given any opportunity to embrace smaller, more poorly funded, and less socially significant “voluntary” initiatives, Republicans will take it while opposing anything national in scale. What Brooks appears to really want is a mobilization of entire age cohorts for service in understaffed occupations made more urgent by COVID-19, as a generational way station from school to work (or higher education). It’s less like occasional voluntarism and more like the “Social Year” of service that many young Germans undertake, and that was once (for young men, at least) an alternative to military conscription.

Could something like full-scale national service thread the needle and command support from across the partisan and ideological spectrum? It might be feasible as an emergency measure if both the public-health and economic crises we are experiencing now last for an extended period of time. If Donald Trump remains president after next January, however, it’s unlikely any form of service that doesn’t involve large military parades or threats of catastrophic violence against America’s rivals will receive much encouragement.

As a longer-term proposition, conservative allergy to national service may be complemented by progressive concerns that it’s a poor substitute for guaranteed public employment, a universal basic income, or free higher education. But it’s an idea that deserves a real hearing in this as in past generations, particularly now when almost anything seems possible.

Is It Time for a Full-Scale National Service Program?