Should National Service Be Part of Obama's Economic Plan?
While President-elect Obama has yet to provide the specifics of his economic proposals, some have suggested he could partially meet the need to create new jobs by fulfilling a campaign promise to expand national service programs.
In a Dec. 5, 2007 address in Iowa, Obama outlined several proposals to expand the nation’s service-based programs, including Americorps, Peace Corps and VISTA and programs that promote volunteerism and service among America’s younger citizens. Separately, he'd also like to see an expansion of the nation's Job Corps programs for disadvantaged youth.
Obama proposed in that December 2007 speech expanding Americorps from 75,000 slots to 250,000 and creating specialized corps to address education, health, energy, veteran and homeland security-related needs and concerns. Among other things, he also proposed doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011, finding new ways to connect seniors with volunteer opportunities and offering $4,000 tax credits to college students who perform at least 100 hours of community service.
“The way I’d sell it right now is to make it part of the economic stimulus package,” said Paul Light, a NYU professor and Brookings Institution senior fellow specializing in the federal bureaucracy. “Anything that creates employment opportunities, even if it’s in the realm of public service, is a logical candidate for that package.”
“I just don’t think Congress is going to turn to a vast expansion of the program as part of a separate agenda. It costs money, and if you’ve got a freight train pulling out of the station and you want to add some additional freight, that’s where you put Americorps perhaps,” he added.
“I think it’s safe to say that our non-profit infrastructure -- especially the part that helps social services -- is going to be badly hurt by the economic crisis, just as physical infrastructure was damaged by Hurricane Katrina,” said David Eisner, the recently-retired CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs Americorps. And there are plenty of applicants to fill the new slots if they win approval, Eisner said, noting that Americorps receives three times as many applications than available slots.
Another "corps" potentially up for expansion is the Job Corps. That's because Obama's service proposals also call for expanding the nation's "green" workforce, or people trained to weatherize buildings and make them more energy efficient, or to build up the nation's renewable energy infrastructure.
While it's not a volunteer program like Americorps or Peace Corps, Job Corps helps lower-income or at-risk 16- to 24-year-olds earn a high school diploma or GED or learn a trade that could help them get a job. Currently five new Job Corps centers are under construction in Florida, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Iowa and Wyoming.
Obama has proposed creating "an energy-focused youth jobs program" that would provide disadvantaged youth with volunteer opportunities to weatherize buildings and learn skills for "green" jobs through Job Corps.
"I have tasked my managers here to develop green curriculums so we can train our people for green jobs," says Job Corps administrator Esther Johnson. "We don't have a green curriculum in Job Corps training per se, but we're starting to work on that so we can train our Job Corps people to get some of these green jobs."
While the nation's employment needs would obviously help fill any new positions, its shifting demographics could also make Obama's proposals popular.
“We’re seeing more service than ever in our nation’s high schools,” Eisner said. A 2006 UCLA study found that 86 percent of incoming college freshmen -- most of whom are now presumably college juniors thinking about post-college employment – volunteered at least occasionally during high school and 70 percent did so at least once a week. It also found an increased interest in civic responsibility and engagement, partially influenced by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina -- events that occurred during Millennials’ high school years. In other words, there’s a natural desire to serve.
“I thought this myself, that one of the reason millennials do it – is to boost their resume,” Eisner said. “When we’re doing our recruiting we learned that the folks that we’re going after don’t like those as reasons. What they care about are two things: the opportunity to change the world and the opportunity to have an adventure.”
“That’s us boomers putting our values onto a generation that has different values,” he said.
So What Would You Do? Make Obama's proposals to expand service opportunities part of his economic plans? Or focus on a different type of job creation? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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