Should there be a significant federal investment in a national service program?

Alan Khazei
Alan Khazeihandout


Alan Khazei

Brookline resident; co-founder of City Year; vice chair of the Service Year Alliance; candidate for Congress in 2020

We are in the middle of a presidential campaign that daily reminds us of the enormous challenges our country faces: a student debt crisis, environmental devastation, out-of-control health care costs, educational and income inequality, and the increasing need to care for our children and growing elderly population, just to name a few.

Meanwhile, trust continues to decline in the very institutions designed to insure fairness. Strength in a common purpose has been undermined by polarization and a country more divided than we’ve been in decades.


In the search for transformative ideas to remedy what ails us, none may be better than universal voluntary national service.

When Michael Brown and I co-founded City Year from our dorm room as a model for national service more than 30 years ago, we believed national service was an idea powerful enough to transform America. Since then, more than 1.1 million people have served in AmeriCorps, and we know national service works. Service volunteers every day address so many of our pressing needs — mentoring school children, preserving our environment, fighting poverty, and confronting the opioid crisis.

Service is not only a cost-effective way to solve problems, it brings diverse people together in common cause, sets them up for success in life, and creates more caring, active citizens. National service alumni vote and volunteer at higher rates than their peers, and one study showed that every $1 invested in national service brings a nearly $4 return to society.

We can take service to the next level by creating a civilian version of the GI Bill that ties service to children’s savings accounts. The dollars invested in these accounts would grow tax- free and only unlock when a year of service is completed.


A year of service could earn a young volunteer money for college tuition, a down payment on a home, or to start a small business or non profit. With national service, we can unleash the energy of young people to tackle our problems, unite our country, and create an economic level playing field.

National service is an idea whose time has come, and, if taken to scale, would inspire every generation to become a “greatest generation.”

Marc Mercier
Marc Mercierhandout


Marc Mercier

Boxford resident, chair of the Libertarian Association of Massachusetts

“Mom, stop the car!”, my eldest son blurted. Before my wife could bring the car to a halt, our son hopped out and hustled back to an elderly woman on the sidewalk. It was winter and she was shoveling heavy snow from her driveway. My son offered to help her. She gladly accepted. When he was done, the woman offered him some cash. He refused it. When asked why he said, “just wanted to help.” I was proud!

If my son had performed the service to earn a government stipend or qualify for education credits, I wouldn’t have been quite as proud. If I learned that my friends and neighbors were made to subsidize his service; even less so.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, a record high 77 million Americans volunteered in 2017, logging 6.9 billion hours worth an estimated $167 billion — without government prompting. Americans share a tradition of service to others. It is part of our culture. In addition to the hours spent volunteering, Americans that year generously donated $410 billion. Voluntarily. Privately.


Increasing government involvement in charity is a terrible idea.

First, interference is not needed. Americans already are voluntarily united to do good.

Second, adding a layer of bureaucracy and administration inherently increases the cost of providing the service. If the costs increase, the people we seek to help receive less. Direct giving of our time and money is the most economically efficient method of helping.

Third, as stated by Tiffany Gourley Carter of the National Council of Nonprofits, organizations want volunteers who are purely motivated by the organization’s cause, not a monetary reward. Government mandates or incentives defile the very nature of volunteering.

Fourth, bringing government into any situation politicizes it. By politicizing charity, you pit special interest against special interest. Only organizations with political lobby power would likely get funded. Factions would develop and interests would be displaced. Worse, our friends and neighbors could be forced (taxed) to fund organizations they may not support, Such force is always wrong. By its nature, political action causes dissatisfaction and strife. In contrast, voluntary action just helps.

This is not a scientific survey. Please vote only once.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.