The number of Americans annually participating in national service programs will triple under legislation approved today by the House of Representatives and approved last week by the Senate, from 75,000 a year to 250,000 by 2017. Especially heartening, given my experience as a senior policy advisor in the Senate on the enactment of the National Service Trust Act of 1993 was the level of bipartisan support.
The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, passed the House 275-149 with almost all Democrats supporting it. While a clear majority of Republicans were opposed, it still garnered 26 Republican votes. The Senate had passed the same legislation last Thursday in a 78-20 vote, including 22 Republicans. It is expected that President Obama, who campaigned on this issue will sign it into law shortly.
The legislation creates four new corps to address needs in low-income communities: a Clean Energy Corps (CEC) that deals with energy efficiency and conservation; an Education Corps to increase student engagement and achievement; a Healthy Futures Corps to improve access to health-care; and a Veterans Service Corps to help veterans get needed social services. The CEC will build energy-efficient low-income housing, provide clean energy-related services designed to meet the needs of rural communities, and work with schools and youth programs to educate students and youth about ways to reduce home energy use and improve the environment.
The bill creates new programs for a wide range of age groups. A new Summer of Service program for middle- and high-school students encourages them to volunteer in their communities by allowing them to earn $500 to be used toward college costs. Students will be eligible to participate in two terms, earning up to $1,000. The Silver Scholarships and Encore Fellowships are two programs that offer Americans age 55 or older post-career service opportunities, as well as a way into new careers in the nonprofit or public sector. The federal education reward that volunteers receive for their service, rises to $5,350 starting next year, from the current $4,725 and is then indexed to increases in Pell grants.
The bill also dramatically strengthens service learning — using community service projects as a vehicle to strengthen and enforce academic learning in schools. [Studies have found that service learning can be an especially effective way to teach since the service projects often require underlying academic skills which students are more motivated to learn or practice if they understand their relevance, and which students remember better afterwards. An example might be teaching students about scientific measurement by measuring pollution in a river and sharing these results with local environmental groups or officials.]
National service has huge ripple effects on volunteering. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that oversees the AmeriCorps program, estimates that the 75,000 AmeriCorps members who served last year supervised 2.2 million community volunteers.
Interest in volunteering is rising amid the worsening economy, the sheen that President Obama has given to this issue, and the coming of age of a more altruistic generation, many who got exposure to volunteering in school. But the economic downturn has also hit the younger generation harder. Of the 1.2 million jobs lost last year, 60% were held by workers under the age of 25, according to the office of U.S. Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.).
There were 9,731 applications submitted to the AmeriCorps online system last month, over triple the 3,159 submitted in February 2008. In 2007, more than 61 million Americans spent over 8 billion hours volunteering. More than a quarter of young Americans 16-25 have volunteered. And nearly 65,000 college students prepared to do volunteer work for spring break this year, up 11% over last year.
“The silver lining of economic downturns is that more Americans, especially Millennials, are flocking to public-service positions,” said Sandy Scott, CNCS spokesman.
Investing in service also leverages impressive economic returns. In 2007, volunteers generated $158 billion worth of economic benefits. A cost-benefit analysis of AmeriCorps, for example, showed that every $1 invested produced returns of $1.50 to $3.90 in direct measurable benefits.
As Patrick Kennedy said on the floor of the House before passage: ” There’s an old saying that reads, ‘The most sacred thing one person can give another, outside of their love, is their labor.’ That goes to the core of why supporting programs that promote volunteerism and community service is so important..”
Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee noted on the floor of the House:
History has shown that in times of crisis, Americans turn to service and volunteering for healing, for rebuilding and for hope. The spirit and generosity of the American people is one of our nation’s greatest assets….We see this every single day. In the past week, North and South Dakota have been in a state of emergency, with communities facing severe flooding as the snow melts. As they have in so many other times of disaster, Americans showed up to help. Officials estimate that there are tens of thousands of volunteers who have already been on the ground for days, lining the shores of the river with over 1.5 million sandbags to help stop the flooding. In Fargo, a city with a population of 90,000, 80,000 volunteers showed up to help.They’ve driven through treacherous conditions from Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, and beyond, ready to serve and ready to help….This legislation is just what we need, at this pivotal moment, to get our nation back on track.
President Obama commented: “”I call on all Americans to stand up and do what they can to serve their communities, shape our history and enrich both their own lives and the lives of others across this country.”
A summary of the service learning provisions is available here.
In the run-up to the bill being passed there were also strong editorials or op-eds:
Bruce Reed and John Bridgeland , Volunteer to Save the Economy, NYT op-ed (1/23/09), noting that since those doing national service cost far less, they could provide an outsize economic stimulus per dollar invested.
The Moment for National Service, NYT Editorial (1/26/09)
Colin Powell, Let’s Renew America Together, WSJ Op-Ed (1/17/09), discussing the importance of USAservice.org
[I]n times of need…, [t]his is not a time to retreat to our homes and wait until it’s safe to emerge. It is the time to give more, to step forward and serve our fellow citizens, and to reach into the reservoir of this nation’s unrivaled capacity for good….You don’t have to wear the uniform of this country to serve others. You don’t have to work in government. And you don’t have to start a foundation. At a time when so many of our countrymen are in need, everyone has the power to help.