Category Archives: national service

Call the White House: Avoid a sad day for service

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner agreed to $37.6 billion in cuts for FY11.  Details are now leaking out of where those cuts will come from.  Apparently while they would largely save AmeriCorps, they would completely defund Learn and Serve America, which is the arm by which the government encourages service learning.

Service-learning integrates community service into school curricula so students learn about scientific measurement by measuring the pollution in a local streambed, or learn about the Depression or WWI through oral history projects with shut-in seniors.  The projects obviously vary depending on the underlying tie to the curriculum and the age of the students, but service learning is effective for students as young as kindergarten or as old as college-aged.

Defunding service learning ignores the fact that it is a highly cost-effective “four-fer”.  First, studies show that students learn skills better where the underlying skills that teachers want to teach are inherent to a task that students need to perform; what is called an “educational pull” rather than “educational push” approach to teaching.  Second, service learning is very inexpensive; students don’t need to be stipended, and teachers are already paid, so it is usually just the cost of materials or transportation or a part-time organizer/coordinator.  That is why the $40 million in savings from defunding Learn and Serve America represents just 3% of the Corporation for National and Community Service’s budget but generates 70% of the community service participants! Third, it gets valuable service accomplished (feeding the homeless or turning an abandoned lot into a playground).  And finally, it pays life-long returns.  Studies show that youth who engage in community service at a younger age are much more likely to be actively engaged in volunteering and other forms of civic engagement throughout their whole lives.  In that sense, down the road it likely leaves less of a need for future government since more of it is being done by active citizens; consider it preventative community maintenance.  As the maxim goes:  “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”

For more information on the cuts and what you can do see YSA’s page.

For more information on the benefits of service learning, see the National Service Learning Clearinghouse or this Kellogg Foundation report.

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Great day for national service

Community Service Graffiti (look closely)-by EgoAnt

Community Service Graffiti (look closely)-by EgoAnt

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 legislation is available here.

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.

Read previous Social Capital blog posts on the importance of national service.

Obama push for citizen service

The incoming Obama administration has spun their service effort into USAservice.org.

They are planning day-of-service events over the inauguration (which could be significant with 2-3 million Americans descending on our nation’s capital).  Their longer-term plans are less clear, but they have in the works plans to spotlight civilian service over MLK holiday weekend.

Buffy Wicks in this video explaining their efforts of “Renew America Together”, which is being launched the day before the Inauguration.

If you’re interested in this topic, read Nancy Scola (for TechPresident) on their service plans for MLK weekend.  They aspire to “reignite the American tradition of service and volunteerism and to that end the current call to action [on MLK’s birthday] is viewed as a starting point.”

This type of initiative  is one of the reasons that I’m optimistic about the role that the Obama bullypulpit may play in a revitalization of social capital in the US.  It is always critical in these “Days of Service” that it be a starting point (ultimately interesting Americans in more regular service to others) rather than an end in itself.

Former Saguaro participant Jim Wallis (of Sojourner’s), who has been on the Obama transition advisory team on civil society and faith-based organizations, notes that he is calling the MLK day speech by Obama and service-day “an altar call to take action in our own lives and families, our local communities, and in our nation on the big issues that we face. We have been exploring the possibilities of not just service but all kinds of civil action, including community organizing and advocacy on social justice issues. The president-elect will be giving a call to action on that day before he addresses the nation in his inaugural ceremony the next day.”

Jonathan Alter has a well-reasoned Newsweek piece (“Don’t Muffle the Call to Serve“) on how national service might be an inexpensive way of stimulating our economy while accomplishing a lot of the useful rebuilding we need to get done.  It echoes David Brooks’ NYT column from Dec. 9 (This Old House”).  Here are some excerpts of Alter’s column:

The day before the inauguration is the Martin Luther King holiday, and the president-elect wants it to be devoted to service. But Barack Obama knows that one Monday of good deeds—even if it becomes an annual tradition when people help each other rather than sit home watching TV—isn’t enough. Throughout the campaign, he talked about something much bigger—a new era of civic engagement, with a quarter-million young people helping pay for their education by serving their country at home and abroad.

But as Mario Cuomo is fond of pointing out, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This year, you transition in prose, too. That means the dreams of the Obama Generation are in danger of being deferred even before their man takes office. The economists confronting the present crisis apparently don’t have a lot of time for programs like AmeriCorps, which uses a network of local and national nonprofits to employ 75,000 mostly young Americans to teach kids to read, to run after-school programs, to build affordable housing, to clean parks and streams, among many other service projects. The brainiacs aren’t sure these do-gooders are relevant to recovery. They’re wrong about that, in more ways than one.

This is why:

…[F]or 1 percent of the stimulus, about $7 billion, Obama could create 8 percent of the 3 million new jobs he has promised. Those 250,000 new national-service slots would simultaneously fulfill his campaign pledge to young people. And with 15 years of scandal-free AmeriCorps apparatus in place, service jobs can be established with Rooseveltian speed, an important criteria for inclusion in the stimulus. At about $20,000 each, AmeriCorps jobs are also much less expensive than those in construction.

The other standard Obama has wisely applied to the package is that every dollar spent should help the country long-term. Thus the projects enumerated by Summers would rebuild infrastructure, lessen dependence on foreign oil and reduce health-care costs. But investing in human capital is every bit as critical for the future. Service develops the talents of those who perform it as well as those they help. It changes lives. And communitarian thinking is contagious. Each year, AmeriCorps’s 75,000 full-time members leverage another 1.7 million volunteers.

Obama’s historic election

barack-obama-hopeThe election of Saguaro’s Barack Obama as 44th, and first African-American president marks itself as a truly historic election.  It makes me immensely proud to be an American.

Some notes on the election:

1) voter turnout:  preliminary turnout projections put the numbers between 134 million (Curtis Gans, American U.) and 136.6 million Americans (Michael McDonald, GMU).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. [Some 30 million voted early and some 105 million were believed to have voted on election day.] This would translate into a voter turnout rate of somewhere around 64%, possibly exceeding the all time rate in 1960, or just below this rate.  [Curtis Gans notes on a Metro Connection interview that turnout was very high among Democrats, but actually lower in 2008 among Republicans; Gans notes that some states actually had lower turnout.  Gans notes that one shouldn’t compare votes cast to number of registered voters since once can manipulate turnout rates depending on how recently they cleaned the voter lists for people who moved or died.]  (You can see from below chart that after declining until 1996, it has shot up in the last 12 years).  [David King, of the Kennedy School believes that voter turnout, without counting the absentee ballots was 64.9%, matching the 1960 rates and could rise higher.)  One can see this as half-full or half-empty;  it is disconcerting that even in an election with such important consequences for the future of the nation, and with such compelling personalities (Obama and Palin), and with unprecedented sums spent on advertising and GOTV (get out the vote) efforts, still over a 1/3 of all eligible Americans did not vote.  But nonetheless, it is a remarkable turnaround in the last 12 years.  Curtis Gans thinks that the trends of civic disengagement from voting are generally occurring and although he hopes Obama brings in a new era of civic engagement, he thinks we shouldn’t infer too much from a couple of close elections in 2000-2008.

presidential-turnout-rates

(Source: Michael McDonald, GMU)

2) youth vote:  Part of the story in the resurgence is youth voting.  We witnessed  huge increases in primary voting among younger voters 18-29 year olds (in many cases doubling or tripling number of youth votes 4-8 years ago in the primaries).  We have written  about what might be the beginning of a 9-11 Generation among youth, preliminary reports from CIRCLE were that youth 18-29 did not make up an increased percentage of voters in the 2008 general election [since all age groups were increasing their voter turnout, the youth’s share stayed constant at about 17%).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. But it appears that the youth are continuing to turn out at increasing rates (from 37% in 1996 to 41% in 2000 to 48% in 2004 to 49-54% in 2008). [CIRCLE is still projecting the youth turnout from the 2008 election; we’ll fill this in when they come in with a definite number, but it could be the second highest youth turnout ever since 1972 when it was 54.5%.]  David King at the Kennedy School says the data indicates it was the highest turnout for 18 year-olds since 1972. Whether the glass is half full or half empty is a matter of interpretation;  voting rates for youth are still significantly below voting rates for seniors, for example.  And young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama.  [See the NYT’s story “Youth Turnout up by 2 Million from 2004“]

3) mobilizing new people into the political process:  2008 was an unprecedented year in terms of the numbers of volunteers and donors to the Obama campaign, and an exquisite combination of “high-tech” and “high-touch” in his campaign (with tens of thousands of door-to-door canvassers coupled with a highly sophisticated use of e-mail, texting, use of cellphone, and websites).  [We’ve written about that earlier here and here. ] But with the massive increases in the number of registered Americans, preliminary reports were that first-time voters were not noticeably higher than they were in 2004 as a percentage of the voters (even though their absolute numbers increased, since the total number of voters increased).  In the process of his campaign, he spurred 50,000 local events, 1.5 million volunteers on the web, 8,000 web-based affinity groups, and 3.1 million donors who contributed almost $700 million to his campaign. It didn’t hut that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes helped worked for the Obama campaign. [My colleague David Lazer talks about in “Obama’s Machine” [Forbes], how Obama might unleash this network in the future to his advantage.]

4) What will new Obama administration look like?  What will be their priorities?

In some regards, it is too soon to tell.  But there have been some inklings of important strands announced by Barack on the stump, above and beyond his obvious focus on energy independence, ending the war in Iraq and trying to make the economy work again.

Focus on sacrifice: Alexandra Marks article in Christian Science Monitor discussed this theme which Obama also returned to in his speech last night from Chicago.

Obama in his victory speech: “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers — in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.”

Role of the citizen:  Mentioning Obama’s focus, Michael Sandel noted “…[A] new politics of the common good can’t be only about government and markets. “It must also be about a new patriotism — about what it means to be a citizen.”  (From Thomas Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, NYT, 11/5/08)

From Obama’s victory speech: “[The campaign victory] was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth….[A]bove all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand….This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”

– Focus on service:  from Barack’s mention of a bold plan for AmeriCorps expansion as a campaign promise, to his appearing in the ServiceSummit with John McCain and Richard Stengel of TIME, to his invocation of service in his victory speech.  [As Michael Sandel noted, “This is the deepest chord Obama’s campaign evoked. The biggest applause line in his stump speech was the one that said every American will have a chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service — in the military, in the Peace Corps or in the community. Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.” (Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, 11/5/08)]

– Slate magazine’s John Dickerson also had an interesting post on  6 ways that Obama could show he is a new type of leader

And E.J. Dionne (who was a fellow member of Saguaro with Barack) wrote an op-ed today “A New Era for America” talking about how he expects that in the same way as Barack completely recast the campaign process, he will recast politics.

Yes, it is time to hope again….Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over. Time to imagine that the patriotism of dissenters will no longer be questioned and that the world will no longer be divided between “values voters” and those with no moral compass. Time to expect that an ideological label will no longer be enough to disqualify a politician….Above all, it is time to celebrate the country’s wholehearted embrace of democracy, reflected in the intense engagement of Americans in this campaign and the outpouring to the polls all over the nation…. Obama inherits challenges that could overwhelm any leader and faces constraints that will tax even his exceptional political skills. But the crisis affords him an opportunity granted few presidents to reshape the country’s assumptions, change the terms of debate and transform our politics. The way he campaigned and the way he won suggest that he intends to do just that.