National Service Programs
National Service Programs
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush called on American citizens to donate four thousand hours to community service—the equivalent of two working years—over their lifetime. The U.S. government has supported volunteering and community service in various ways since the 1930s. One of the ways is to establish national service programs that engage citizens in helping other people. The term national service traditionally refers to a nationwide program of public/community work in which citizens, mostly young people, serve for one or two years at a subminimum wage to help the community as well as themselves (Gorham 1992; Moskos 1988). In countries such as Israel, Korea, Austria, Singapore, and Turkey, young people (mostly male) are required to serve in the military. In other countries, for example, Germany, (male) citizens may choose whether they want to serve in the armed forces or participate in alternative national service programs. In the mid-1960s, many programs in the United States began to engage a broader array of the population, including students and senior citizens, in a variety of activities.
The first large-scale national service program in the United States was developed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In March 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC essentially was an employment/welfare program that provided basic education and income for young, unemployed people. The program employed over three million participants until 1942, when capable young men were no longer available because of the advent of World War II (1939–1945) (Perry 2004). The Roosevelt Administration also created the Works Progress Administration in May 1935, offering work to more than 3.4 million of the unemployed by the next year (Indiana University 2006).
National service in the United States reached an early peak under the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. The early success of the Peace Corps in rallying support for public service contributed significantly to the development of later service programs, such as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA; the so-called domestic Peace Corps), as well as Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, the latter three of which have been administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) since 1993. The goal of all of these programs was to enact changes in the ways institutions addressed issues of poverty and community empowerment.
In the 1970s, the focus of national service programs shifted from institutions to individuals. New programs, such as the Youth Conservation Corps in President Richard M. Nixon's administration, sought to change individuals, rather than to alter institutions (Perry 2004). However, the efforts of President Ronald Reagan's administration to shrink the size and breadth of the federal government also led to the downsizing of federal support for many national service programs (Perry 2004).
The 1990s witnessed renewed interest in national service in the United States. President Bill Clinton's National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993 expanded the National and Community Service Act of 1990 by creating a new agency called the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to house all domestic national service programs. The Clinton administration also established AmeriCorps, which provides full- and part-time community service opportunities to individuals in education, public safety, the environment, and human needs. In the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the second Bush administration launched the USA Freedom Corps, an umbrella agency with responsibility for coordinating volunteer programs across all federal agencies, and increased AmeriCorps programs, sponsored by CNCS.
As mentioned, CNCS houses all domestic national service programs: national and state AmeriCorps programs, AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America. In 2005 the CNCS sponsored and managed about 3.7 million volunteers, with a budget of about $927 million. Citizen Corps, a vital component of Freedom Corps administered by the Department of Homeland Security, represents five programs that provide opportunities for Americans to participate directly in security efforts: Citizen Corps Councils, Community Emergency Response Teams, Medical Reserve Corps, Neighborhood Watch, the Fire Corps, and Volunteers in Police Service. In 2006 the Peace Corps program enrolled 7,810 volunteers in seventy-five countries, with a budget of $318.8 million (Peace Corps 2006).
National service programs in the United States face difficult challenges, including financial, social, and legitimacy.
Funding Challenge Funding national service programs has been a continual and critical issue. For example, many AmeriCorps programs have undergone budget cuts. Continuing concern about the management of the National Service Trust Fund, which is dedicated for educational awards to AmeriCorps participants, and budgetary cutbacks by the federal government have forced the program to decrease the number of enrollments (Schwinn 2003; Wilhelm 2003).
Social Challenge National service programs can impose a social challenge by widening the split between the middle class and the underprivileged, rather than narrowing it. As Charles C. Moskos argued in his 1988 book, A Call to Civic Service, American national service can be seen as having a “two-tier” system: Elite programs such as the Peace Corps attract highly educated college graduates. Ninety-six percent of Peace Corps volunteers have at least an undergraduate degree, and 13 percent have earned graduate credits or degrees. By contrast, the large national service programs such as AmeriCorps attract primarily entry-level workers by offering a stipend and college education awards to participants.
Legitimacy Challenge A third issue confronting national service is the legitimacy challenge. In this case, legitimacy means that the overall benefits of these programs must exceed their costs, or that the benefits would not occur in the absence of the program. For example, if as survey research demonstrates, a sizable percentage of Americans (26.7 percent in 2006) volunteer apparently on their own volition (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2007), the justification for subsidizing these efforts through national service appears suspect. William F. Buckley Jr. (1990) maintains that there is no point in taxing citizens if the purpose is to give back the same amount. Of course, national service programs offer a variety of nonmonetary benefits, for instance, skill development, civic responsibility, and greater knowledge and awareness. These benefits, however, are not readily measurable, and consequently, demonstrating the legitimacy of these programs remains critical.
Despite the promotion by recent presidents of voluntary national service, marshalling sufficient monetary resources for this purpose is likely to remain an issue. One way to augment funds for national service is through partnering with private and nonprofit organizations, as well as attempting to recover a portion of related costs from them, a strategy pursued increasingly by AmeriCorps.
One of the significant changes in national service programs is increased inclusiveness. Traditionally, national service programs mainly targeted youth; more programs have been created to engage diverse populations, such as older people. These efforts can help to alleviate the socioeconomic gap in national and community service.
Finally, studies of broader scope can be conducted to address the legitimacy challenge confronting national service. Analysis of costs and impacts of these programs—not only for affected communities but also for national service participants—may demonstrate greater benefits, improve current programs, and increase public support.
Buckley, William F., Jr. 1990. Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country. New York: Random House.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 2007. Volunteering in the United States, 2006. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm.
Corporation for National and Community Service. 2005. Fiscal Year 2005 Performance and Accountability Report. http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/role_impact/strategic_plan.asp.
Corporation for National and Community Service. The Role of the Federal Government. http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/volunteering/federal.asp.
Gorham, Eric B. 1992. National Service, Citizenship, and Political Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Indiana University Lilly Library. More about the WPA. http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/wpa/wpa_info.html.
Moskos, Charles C. 1988. A Call to Civic Service: National Service for Country and Community. New York: Free Press. Peace Corps. Fast Facts. http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.whatispc.fastfacts.
Perry, James L., and Ann Marie Thomson. 2004. Civil Service: What Difference Does It Make? Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Schwinn, Elizabeth. 2003. A Dwindling Corps: Anticipated Slash in AmeriCorps Enrollment Could Prove Dire for Charities That Rely on the Program. Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 26. http://www.philanthropy.com/free/articles/v15/i18/18003501.htm.
Wilhelm, Ian. 2003. AmeriCorps Expects to Cut Number of Participants in Half This Year. Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 23. http://www.philanthropy.com/free/update/2003/05/2003052301.htm.
Jeffrey L. Brudney