Americans are at war with an invisible enemy — a virus that latches its spiky proteins onto healthy cells, crippling our ability to breathe. As infections rise, tragedies mount, and lockdowns continue, the health crisis is prompting an economic crisis with parallels to the Great Depression. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded with the New Deal, marshaling the nation to put Americans to work through national service. Once again, America needs the bold idea of national service to tackle this pandemic.
The president and Congress should enact an Emergency Service to Nation Jobs effort to immediately engage 500,000 young people, ages 18-26 — 1 million of them by 2022 — in a year of national service to put them to work and meet the nation’s pressing needs. One example is America’s need for 300,000 contact tracers when we have only 2,200 to track down all the people in contact with those infected by the virus. In Massachusetts, Governor Baker launched an “AmeriCorps-style program” enlisting more than 1,200 public health students and others in contact tracing. California Governor Newson has launched a similar effort.
We’ve met this national unemployment challenge before. In March of 1933, President Roosevelt expressed the urgency of a nation in his Inaugural Address: “Our greatest task is to put people to work . . . . treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war.” Roosevelt called Congress into emergency session and proposed a Civilian Conservation Corps to bring together two threatened resources — young men out of work and public and agricultural lands beset by soil erosion and fewer trees.
Within three months of enactment, 250,000 young men were working to conserve natural resources, more than 500,000 were employed within two years, and over its nine-year life, 3 million 18-to 26-year-olds served the nation while supporting themselves and their families. CCC members planted 3 billion trees, built 97,000 roads, protected 84 million acres of land, erected 3,400 fire towers, and created 800 state parks.
We should enlist the energy and idealism of young people today, who show a rate of unemployment about three times that of other adults, to get similar results. In addition to addressing the contact tracing challenge, national service could address educational inequities highlighted by COVID-19. In most high schools, graduation rates are 90 percent or higher; in the remaining low-performing schools, the average graduation rate is 40 percent. At least one-third of all high school students require academic tutoring. A service corps could provide tutoring and mentoring to vulnerable students and boost graduation rates.
COVID-19 also exposes the digital divide, as students without Internet access are shut out of virtual learning. Sixty-percent of Native American students in tribally-controlled schools don’t have access to broadband, nor do many students in rural and low-income areas. A service corps could partner with companies and the government to bring Internet hotspots to these areas and prompt the equivalent for broadband what rural electrification did for America in 1936.
There is renewed support for national service and more localized infrastructure today than in 1933. Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal has brought together a service alliance to increase service-year opportunities for 18- to 26-year-olds — with the goal of 1 million annually. The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service just released its final report with similar recommendations to Congress.
Last week, Chris Coons and other US senators introduced the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act. It would fund 150,000 service jobs through AmeriCorps over the course of the next year — with a goal of creating 300,000 jobs annually within two years. This legislation represents a strong step forward but, given the level of unemployment for young people, ultimately we need to do more — and Republicans who have long championed service should join in.
In its next stimulus package, Congress should provide funding for 500,000 service-year positions — 250,000 through AmeriCorps to fulfill the promise of the bipartisan Serve America law and 250,000 Service Year Fellowships by lottery so 575 young women and men can choose to serve in qualified nonprofits and local governments in every congressional district. Service corps members could engage in a new Public Health Corps to do contact tracing and meet other health needs, Education Corps to help close the achievement gap, and Broadband Access Corps to close the digital divide. They could also address inequities the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed — and exacerbated — by fighting poverty, building housing for the homeless, helping veterans and the elderly, and conserving the environment.
COVID-19 has produced a desire to emerge more unified as a nation and less divisive as a culture. No other idea would do more to unite and heal us than calling on young Americans for a shared generational experience of national service. We can also provide young people with a post-service award, with funds for job training, to pay for college or grad school, repay student debt, or to start their own small business or nonprofit, especially given many will have participated in their last weeks of occupational training or college virtually and will enter a battered economy.
In 1933, confronted with a dramatic turn from full employment to massive unemployment, Roosevelt and Congress moved swiftly to employ millions of Americans, including young Americans in the CCC. Seeing the same turn of events today, national leaders should stay on war footing to tap the talents of the next generation through community-based organizations to meet our country’s critical needs with support from the government and the private sector. In doing so, we can imagine an America where one day the first question we ask is, “Where did you serve?”
Alan Khazei is co-founder of the national service nonprofit City Year and a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Massachusetts’ 4th District. John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Both are cofounders of Service Year Alliance along with General Stanley McChrystal and Shirley Sagawa.