The Great Depression of the 1930s placed national service on center stage. Two of the most successful initiatives of the New Deal were national programs for youth: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Youth Administration (NYA). President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave some thought to putting national service on a more permanent footing after World War II, but his death intervened.
The 1950s were the doldrums for the idea of civilian national service, but the climate changed when President John F. Kennedy in 1961 set up the Peace Corps, an overseas youth corps to serve primarily in Third World countries. Participants received a subsistence allowance plus free health insurance. Despite changes of fortune, the Peace Corps has proved remarkably durable. Some 150,000 volunteers have served in 92 countries.
The early success of the Peace Corps made a domestic equivalent seem a natural sequel. In 1964, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) was established as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society program. Though it never gained the popularity of the Peace Corps, VISTA has shown durability as well.
In 1988, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an organization of centrist Democrats, proposed its own national service program. Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia and Congressman Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma introduced a bill in 1989 that called for the establishment of a Citizen Corps for two years service in a civilian or military capacity. The conceptual breakthrough was the linkage of military and civilian service under the broader heading of national service. The policy breakthrough was the broadening of postservice educational benefits, e.g., the G.I. Bill principle, to include civilian as well as military service to the nation.
Although the Nunn‐McCurdy bill did not move far in Congress, it set the stage for a public debate on national service. During the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton made national service one of his key campaign planks, part of his “New Democrat” image. In September 1993, President Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act setting up a corporation to oversee the management and funding of an AmeriCorps program. Enrollees would work in nonprofit agencies, community centers, parks, government agencies, and public hospitals.
Since 1994, the annual budget of AmeriCorps has been around $300 million annually. Enrollment averaged between thirty and forty thousand a year. A major threshold was crossed in 1997 when AmeriCorps members could also perform service in faith‐based organizations. In October 1998, a milestone was reached when the 100,000th member of AmeriCorps was enrolled.
The basic term of service in AmeriCorps was one or two years of full‐time duty. Enrollees were paid 85 percent of the minimum wage, about $7,500 a year. In addition, for each year of service, a participant would receive an educational voucher worth $4,725 to be used for vocational education, college, graduate school, or to pay off a college loan. AmeriCorps set a notable precedent: a recognizable civilian variant of the G.I. Bill was codified into law.
The contemporary debate on national service reflects certain ongoing realities. One is that federally run programs have much more national visibility than decentralized programs. Even though AmeriCorps's first‐year membership of 20,000 members was greater than that of the Peace Corps at any time, AmeriCorps's did not achieve the name recognition of the Peace Corps. Even more striking, the aura of the highly centralized and army‐run CCC remains strong in the national consciousness, even though it expired a half century ago, while its larger decentralized and fully civilian counterpart, the NYA, is all but forgotten. A second reality was the continuing tension between proponents of national service who variously emphasized the good done for the server or the value of the work being delivered.
When the Republicans became the new Congressional majority in 1994, it appeared that national service would be placed on the budgetary chopping block. By 1998, however, AmeriCorps had gained more bipartisan support and its future seemed somewhat secure. Indeed, national service for youth was becoming increasingly popular in the United States as the century came to a close. In the late 1990s, AmeriCorps had four applicants for each available opening.
Richard Danzig and and Peter Szanton , National Service: What Would It Mean?, 1986.
Alvin From and and Will Marshall , Citizenship and National Service, 1988.
Donald J. Eberly , National Service: A Promise to Keep, 1989.
Williamson M. Evers, ed., National Service: Pro and Con, 1990.
Steven Waldman , The Bill, 1995.
Charles Moskos , A Call to Civic Service: National Service for Country and Community, 1998.