In humble attempt at casting this in the tradition of Socrates, a (slightly altered) quote:

"The unexamined vote is not worth casting."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

From the Horse's Mouth: National Service Forum With the Candidates

The Time cover to the left caught my eye back in the Spring when it came out--the article's in it are well worth the read. The "national service" options proposed are compelling, with suggestions for volunteer possibilities similar to the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, but with different focuses--e.g., a green corps (volunteers focused on energy/environment issues); a health corps; a senior corps (of older/elderly folks helping out in myriad ways); etc. The presidential campaign began to focus on this issue with a September "National Service Forum," which both McCain and Obama participated in. I'll paste a video of it below, but here's a great quote from Obama during the forum that sums up some of why I think he would have it in him, above and beyond McCain, to call our nation to really give of themselves for a larger good (he was responding to a question about what he would've done after 9-11; the transcript is available here):

"I have to say that the president did rally the nation in a speech at Ground Zero and subsequently. We went after those who had attacked us, appropriately. But rather than tell the American people to shop, what I would have done is to say, now is the time for us to meet some great challenges. We’ve been tested. And yet we have survived it. And we are going to be stronger than we were. And the way we’re going to be stronger than we were is to tap into the feeling that everybody has been caught up in.

We’re going to have a bold energy plan that says that we are going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 20 or 30 percent over the course of a decade or two. We are going to ask all citizens to participate in that process, not just government, but each and every one of us are going to have — are going to make commitments in terms of increasing fuel efficiency in our cars and homes, and the government is going to be in partnership with citizens to make that happen.

We are going to tap into this desire when it comes to first responders. One of the striking things, as you travel around the country, is the number of small towns and medium-sized towns that rely exclusively on volunteer firefighters. And think about what we could have done all across the country as part of a homeland security initiative to organize groups around the country that could serve in those common ways.

And I would have asked very explicitly for young people to engage in community service and military service."

The question of course becomes, what specifically would the candidates do to promote national service? You can see McCain's plan here and Obama's here; both are similar in ways, which I think hints at the consensus there is to actually make something happen on this front. I like a lot about both, but: Obama was a community organizer; he did give a speech explicitly on this subject (though McCain approached the idea in past speeches too); and he also has a detailed nine-page PDF you can look at here (which McCain doesn't have anything close to right now). William A. Schambra, director of the conservative Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, said in July: "McCain is likely to have the strongest service component of any Republican in recent times...[but it] is not likely to be as expensive and sweeping as the Obama proposal. Obama has a very extensive program, has for a long time." (And I would take issue with anyone that does not think Obama's program is worth the investment, as we are financially able to.)

All of that makes me think Obama understands this issue in ways McCain does not. And while McCain of course understands military service in ways Obama doesn't, the beauty of these national service initiatives is that it would create many more ways, beyond simply militarily, to serve our country. A quick story to illustrate the import of alternatives to the military: I have a friend who was considering enlisting because his college and related debt had become too much for him and because he thought it could provide entree into some good job opportunities. Think about that--we provide massive enlistment bonuses, as well as options like college tuition repayment, for the military, but for nothing else that I know of (to that degree). And we wonder why we are such a war/military-obsessed country, why gun violence plagues us, and why peace as a practical possibility is not talked about or pursued in meaningful ways by our people or our country. We need to give folks like my friend more options beyond the military to serve their country and the world, to develop job skills, to deal with, or pay for, college debt (just as we do for those who join the military). The Peace Corps is not enough, AmeriCorps is not enough, and both, as Obama has so insightfully pointed out, have to turn many away each year--don't we want people, particularly young people, to serve, to get the hell outside of themselves?! I know I could have used that, after high school and during my teenage years in general.

But one last point before I paste the Obama and McCain forum video, related to that idea of teenage-service opportunities. There's a section in Obama's service plan PDF that focuses on the need for a "service-learning" surge. This especially sticks out to me because my mom, who is wonderful in so many ways, has been incorporating service into many of her college classes, and even teaches a course that is explicitly service-learning in nature (in the class they read numerous biographies of leaders such as Ghandi, King, Sister Helen Prejean; they then go out and serve their community for a certain number of hours). But, with Obama's plan, the introduction to his section on service-learning says:

"[Obama] believes that all students should serve their communities. Studies show that students who participate in service-learning programs do better in school, are more likely to graduate high school and go to college, and are more likely to become active, engaged citizens...The Obama-Biden plan sets a goal for all students to engage in service, with middle and high school students performing 50 hours of service each year, and college students performing 100 hours of service each year. Under this plan, students would graduate college with as many as 17 weeks of public service experience under their belts."

As a teenager, that type of service would have changed my world real quick, period. Because of this type of nuanced (and detailed) solution from Obama, and for reasons I've posited in this blog (such as the series of posts I did on the values of Obama), I think he is uniquely equipped to provide leadership to move our country into a whole new era of service--not just service to the abstract idea of "country," but a selfless approach to service as a way to bring about a larger good for the many (opposed to the current prospering of the privileged few, as "income inequality [grows] to levels not seen since the Gilded Age").

I'd encourage people to think about that idea of which of the candidates could lead on issues such as this as you watch this fairly in-depth forum with the candidates on national service from a few weeks ago (if you're able to take the time to do so); McCain went first, followed by Obama:

Both Obama and McCain's plans, which I linked to above, appear to draw from the Time series I mentioned at the beginning of this post. An overview of that series, which has a number of various articles connected to it, is here; the primary article which I read and was inspired by back in the Spring is here. It's worth reading in full, I think, but just to wet your appetite for some of the national service options being proposed, here's a quick list directly from the article (many of which are being proposed in some similar and sometimes identical ways by the candidates; I think most, if not all, could do wonders for our national morale and, more practically, our nation's (and youth's!) connections to the realities of our world):

1. Create a National-Service Baby Bond

Every time an American baby is born, the Federal Government would invest $5,000 in that child's name in a 529-type fund — the kind many Americans are already using for college savings. At a rate of return of 7% — the historic return for equities — that money would total roughly $19,000 by the time that baby reaches age 20. That money could be accessed between the ages of 18 and 25 on one condition: that he or she commits to at least one year of national or military service. Like the old GI Bill, the money must be used to fund education, start a business or make a down payment on a home. The bond would preserve the voluntary nature of the service but offer a strong incentive for young people to sign up for it. Says City Year CEO and co-founder Michael Brown: "It's a new kind of government philosophy about reciprocity. If you invest in your country, your country will invest in you."

2. Make National Service a Cabinet-Level Department

Right now, the Corporation for National and Community Service — created in 1993 to manage AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America — is a small, independent federal agency. Find a catchier name, streamline its responsibilities and bring it up to Cabinet level. This would show that the new President means business when it comes to national service and would recognize that service is integral to how America thinks of itself — and how the President thinks of America. And don't appoint a gray bureaucrat to this job; make it someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mike Bloomberg, who would capture the imagination of the public. In fact, the next President — whatever party — should set a goal to enlist at least 1 million Americans annually in national service by the year 2016.

3. Expand Existing National-Service Programs Like AmeriCorps and the National Senior Volunteer Corps

Since 1994, 500,000 people have gone through AmeriCorps programs tutoring and teaching in urban schools; managing after-school programs; cleaning up playgrounds, schools and parks; and caring for the elderly. After Katrina, AmeriCorps participants descended on the Gulf Coast within 24 hours and have since contributed more than 3 million hours of service. AmeriCorps members earn a small stipend for their volunteering and receive education awards of up to $4,725 per year. Right now, says David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, "AmeriCorps is the best-kept secret in America." But under this national-service proposal, the program would more than triple in size, from 75,000 members each year to approximately 250,000. "We don't need to reinvent this nascent infrastructure," says Brown. "We need to take it to scale."

Presently, AmeriCorps is a catch-all initiative for a variety of different programs. Here are four new branded corps and other programs that could come under the new Department of National Service.

4. Create an Education Corps

The idea here is to create a cadre of tutors, teachers and volunteers who can help the 38% of fourth-graders who can't read at a basic level. The members of the Education Corps would also lead after-school programs for the 14 million students — a quarter of all school-age kids — who do not have a supervised activity between 3 and 6 p.m. on schooldays. Studies show that students who spend no time in after-school programs are almost 50% more likely to have used drugs and 37% more likely to become teen parents than students who spend one to four hours a week in an extracurricular activity. The Corps members would also focus on curbing America's dropout epidemic. Right now, 50% of the dropouts come from 15% of the high schools in the U.S., most of them located in high-poverty city neighborhoods and throughout the South. The Education Corps would focus on those troubled school districts.

5. Institute a Summer of Service

For many teenagers, the summer between middle school and high school is an awkward time. They're too young to get a real job and too old to be babysat. Well-to-do families can afford summer camps and exotic learning opportunities, but they're a minority. Shirley Sagawa, an expert on youth policy and an architect of the AmeriCorps legislation, is proposing a Summer of Service. One hundred thousand students would volunteer for organizations like City Year, a national volunteering program and think tank, or Citizen Schools, which organizes after-school activities for middle schoolers, and run summer programs for younger students in exchange for a $500 college scholarship. Senators Christopher Dodd (Democrat, Conn.) and Thad Cochran (Republican, Miss.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (Democrat, Conn.) have sponsored a bill that would support a service "rite of passage" for students before they begin high school.

6. Build a Health Corps

There are nearly 7 million American children who are eligible for but not enrolled in government-sponsored health-insurance programs. Health Corps volunteers would assist the mostly low-income families of these children in accessing available public insurance offerings like the Children's Health Insurance Program. These volunteers could also act as nonmedical support staff such as caseworkers and community education specialists in underserved rural health clinics — which have less than three-quarters of the nonmedical staffing they need, according to Voices for National Service, a coalition of service organizations that advocates expanding federal service programs. The one-year experience in the Health Corps could lead these volunteers toward careers in nursing or medicine, helping to redress gaps that have left the U.S. with a dearth of qualified nurses and medical professionals.

7. Launch a Green Corps

This would be a combination of F.D.R.'s Civilian Conservation Corps — which put 3 million "boys in the woods" to build the foundation of our modern park system — and a group that would improve national infrastructure and combat climate change. When Roosevelt created the CCC, there were 25 million young Americans who were unemployed. Today there are 1.5 million Americans between 18 and 24 who are neither employed nor in school. These young men and women could address America's well-documented infrastructure problems. The Green Corps could reclaim polluted streams and blighted urban lots; repair and rehabilitate railroad lines, ports, schools and hospitals; and build energy-efficient green housing for elderly and low-income people.

8. Recruit a Rapid-Response Reserve Corps

The disarray and lack of a coordinated response to 9/11 and Katrina tell us there is a role volunteers can play in responding quickly to disasters and emergencies. The new Rapid-Response Reserve Corps would consist of retired military and National Guard personnel as well as national- and community-service program alumni to focus on disaster preparedness and immediate response to local and national disasters. The program would initially train 50,000 members, who could be deployed for two-week periods in response to emergencies and serve under the guidance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

9. Start a National-Service Academy

Picture West Point, but instead of learning how to fire an M-4 and reading The Art of War, students would be studying the Federalist papers and learning how to transform a failing public school. Conceived by two former Teach for America corps members, Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond, the U.S. Public Service Academy would give undergraduates a four-year education in exchange for a five-year commitment to public service after they graduate. The idea is to provide a focused education for people who will serve in the public sector — either the federal, state or local government — and thereby create a new generation of civic leaders. Asch and Raymond were so dismayed by the government's response to Katrina that they wanted to create a new generation of people who were idealistic about government. "We need an institution that systematically develops leadership," says Asch. "We need to elevate it in the eyes of young people so we can attract the best and the brightest." The idea has been endorsed by Hillary Clinton and Pennsylvanian Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who are co-sponsors of legislation that would allocate $164 million per year for the envisioned 5,000-student academy.

10. Create a Baby-Boomer Education Bond

Over the next 20 years, 78 million baby boomers will be eligible to retire. That is, if they can afford to — and if they want to. According to an AARP survey, 80% of Americans between 50 and 60 said they were planning to work during retirement. "Many seniors are interested in careers that are influenced by a spirit of service. Over half want to work in the education, health-care and nonprofit sector," says Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures and co-founder of Experience Corps. Experience Corps is the largest AmeriCorps program for people over 55; it consists of teams of 10 to 15 people working to improve reading for students in kindergarten through third grade. Just as AmeriCorps members receive scholarships, baby-boomer volunteers would be able to designate a scholarship of $1,000 for every 500 hours of community service they complete. The $1,000 would be deposited into an education savings account or a 529 fund to be used by the volunteer's children or grandchildren or a student they designate. "There is a whole trend of people starting second careers with a focus on service," says Freedman. "National service is not just for young people. This is the generation that national service was created for in the first place, whom J.F.K. called on to help and for whom we created the Peace Corps. Many missed their chance and are now getting a second opportunity to ask what they can do for their country."

Update: Thomas Sander, Executive Director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard’s Kennedy School, writes a neat blog on civic engagement issues, where he recently had a post on the above forum (and related issues) that is worth reading (as I noted before, I'm so encouraged that Obama actually participated in the Saguaro Seminar from 1996-2000, some years after graduating from Harvard Law). In Sander's post, he mentions a recent David Brooks article from the NY Times, where Brooks (a self-professed conservative) delivers a needed blow to some aspects of conservatism:

"[Barry] Goldwater’s vision was highly individualistic and celebrated a certain sort of person — the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe. The problem is, this individualist description of human nature seems to be wrong. Over the past 30 years, there has been a tide of research in many fields, all underlining one old truth — that we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion...What emerges is not a picture of self-creating individuals gloriously free from one another, but of autonomous creatures deeply interconnected with one another. Recent Republican Party doctrine has emphasized the power of the individual, but underestimates the importance of connections, relationships, institutions and social filaments that organize personal choices and make individuals what they are.

This may seem like an airy-fairy thing. But it is the main impediment to Republican modernization...If there’s a thread running through the gravest current concerns, it is that people lack a secure environment in which they can lead their lives. Wild swings in global capital and energy markets buffet family budgets. Nobody is sure the health care system will be there when they need it. National productivity gains don’t seem to alleviate economic anxiety. Inequality strains national cohesion. In many communities, social norms do not encourage academic achievement, decent values or family stability. These problems straining the social fabric aren’t directly addressed by maximizing individual freedom. And yet locked in the old framework, the Republican Party’s knee-jerk response to many problems is: 'Throw a voucher at it.' Schools are bad. Throw a voucher. Health care system’s a mess. Replace it with federally funded individual choice. Economic anxiety? Lower some tax rate."


Anonymous said...

your military comments are a little infuriating. military does not have anything to do with the occurrence of gun violence. i would say there is actually less gun violence because of the military keeping us safe protecting our freedom. the military has proven to be a life changer for many people to get off the streets where there is real gun violence. and those who are risking their lives for the country deserve a bonus and the gi bill.

Why do you think it is the role of government to provide service opportunities?

Brendan O'Connor said...


I hear what you're saying, and maybe i should have phrased that differently. I don't think that having a military necessitates gun violence, as there are of course lots of countries (in Europe i know for sure) that have a military but don't have gun violence; i also don't know that there's less gun violence as you suggest b/c of the military though. My point was more one about priorities--our country focuses so much more on the military, defense spending, etc. than it does on on alternate ways of national service, the teaching of conflict resolution and peace in our schools, etc. Those skewed priorities that in the end put human life too low on the list, are the reason more specific solutions to problems such as gun violence have not been realized; but i guess the way i wrote that wasn't clearly stated enough, so my apologies for that.

I think a lot of the options for service mentioned in this post, proposed by both candidates, are within a natural role for govt.; as i've said before on here, the govt is just uniquely situated to organize national initiatives--particularly with areas like this where so many agree that our people (young and old) need better options to serve and get acquainted with the hard realities of life.