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Column: National service programs promote work of real social value

For the Valley News
Published: 6/10/2021 10:20:07 PM
Modified: 6/10/2021 10:20:12 PM

In a bitterly divided America, national service programs are often touted as helpful in bridging social gaps and mistrust among people of different political beliefs, races and ethnicities, and economic circumstances. The question is: How successful are these service programs in providing growth opportunities for participants and socially useful activities for the communities they serve?

Prominent Americans have advocated for the need for national service programs. For example: Former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, now the secretary of transportation, has proposed expanding national service programs to give more young Americans a chance to serve their country. Republican Sen. John McCain came to regard AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and other national service programs as “the very essence of patriotism.” And David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, has written that “real change seems to involve putting bodies from different groups in the same room, on the same team and in the same neighborhood. That’s national service programs.”

The need for national service opportunities is clear. From spring 2019 to spring 2020, unemployment among young adults spiked from 8.4% to 24%. Even before the pandemic, the youth labor market was in crisis with the percentage of young people employed or looking for work at historic lows. In 2019, more than 4 million 16- to 24-year-olds were neither in school nor employed, sometimes referred to as “opportunity youth” or “disconnected youth.” As many as 1 in 3 young adults may now fall into this group. The high school dropout rate is about 1 in 5 and many others struggle in college.

National and state service programs such as AmeriCorps, YouthBuild and youth conservation corps provide a variety of socially useful activities: tutoring children, building affordable housing, assisting with disaster response, maintaining public infrastructure and restoring the environment. A closer look of some of these programs underscores their value.

The AmeriCorps National Service Program, established by the Clinton administration, provides full- and part-time community service opportunities to individuals in education, public safety, the environment and human needs. AmeriCorps helps volunteers even more than the communities they serve. For one participant, her 10-month term at a health center in Boston, working with the Latino community, gave her the opportunity to live in a new city while furthering her language skills. It also taught her how to work in a professional setting, learn more about social systems in the United States, and discover what it’s like to do social work.

Clive Belfield, a professor of economics at Queens College, City University of New York, notes that studies of AmeriCorps have found a significant upgrading of skills and emotional well-being, as well as gains in civic engagement and improvements in community infrastructure. For youth, there are substantial benefits from gains in self-worth and from behavioral change, including lower delinquency and improved health status.

National service has also been associated with lower criminal activity. A cost-benefit analysis of AmeriCorps programs found that for each $1 spent, taxpayers receive a return of more than $2 in the form of increased tax revenues and productivity. The social benefits are even greater, with a return of more than 3.5 times the cost.

Remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put Americans left jobless by the Great Depression into community service projects building bridges and highways and helping to establish the U.S. national park system? The program employed more than 3 million people until the onset of World War II. The Roosevelt administration also created the Works Progress Administration in 1935, offering jobs to more than 3.4 million unemployed by the next year.

Today, YouthBuild, a nonprofit organization, provides education, counseling, leadership skills and job skills to unemployed young American adults between ages 16 and 24, generally high school dropouts. Students learn the construction trade by building housing for low-income people in their own communities.

In New Hampshire, Senior Corps volunteers are engaged at more than 200 locations across the state, working in schools, food banks, homeless shelters, health clinics, youth centers, veterans facilities and other nonprofit and faith-based organizations. Participants showed gains in health (physical and psychological), self-esteem, life satisfaction and civic participation.

There were also gains in financial security from expanded employment opportunities subsequent to service. Communities, meanwhile, gained from improvements in local services — most notably in schools, as many seniors provide tutoring and educational assistance.

In 2019, there were about 42 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in the United States; more than 4 million are neither in school nor working. In 2020, there were more than 46 million people of retirement age. The potential for service is enormous.

National service programs such as AmeriCorps, YouthBuild and Senior Corps can connect America’s citizens to opportunity and community — and promote work of real social value.

Bob Scobie lives in West Lebanon.

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