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Guest blogger John Bridgeland is President & CEO of Civic Enterprises, a policy firm that helps corporations, nonprofits, foundations, universities and governments develop and spearhead innovative public policies to strengthen our communities and country. In last week's first post of this Nonprofit Jobs series, we referenced his piece, Put Service on Steroids, and asked him to share this perspective with our audience.
As America struggles to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the nation's top priority is finding jobs for the 10 percent of men and women out of work. An even more staggering figure often gets lost in the debate: the four million unemployed people between the ages of 16 and 24. If the U.S. wants to make a real dent in unemployment, young people are the place to start.
With the private sector short on certainty and Washington short on cash, creating jobs isn't easy. That's why targeting young people makes so much sense. Not only are jobless youth in ample supply, they're cheap to hire and eager to serve. A national network of nonprofits and service organizations already exists to put them to work.
Americans saw the fruitful results of this idea in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt worked with Congress to create the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Within a few months, he had 250,000 young men serving in national parks and forests. Over the term of FDR's national service program, more than three million young men planted three billion trees, constructed 97,000 miles of fire roads, and built drainage systems for 84 million acres of agricultural land. Many of the youth who served for one or two years in the CCC went on to find good jobs in areas related to their service.
Seventy-five years later, the youth unemployment picture looks remarkably similar. What has changed, however, is that the nation has well-oiled service programs in place, thanks to the extraordinary growth of national and community service over the past two decades. And thanks to the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Congress and the administration have the authority to enlist 250,000 young people in tackling the nation's challenges at a cost of $8 billion, less than one percent of last year’s economic recovery package.
With youth unemployment at record levels, it's time to put national service on steroids. Instead of slowly ramping up to 250,000 national service opportunities over five years, the President and Congress should at least double that number now. At a fraction of the cost of other stimulus proposals, the national service injection would offer the country a hat trick.
First, it would put half a million unemployed youth into productive work immediately. Imagine young people teaching, tutoring and mentoring students in America's lowest-performing schools; building Habitat for Humanity Homes in impoverished neighborhoods; strengthening the capacity of food banks and soup kitchens to reach more hungry Americans; and cleaning up America's rivers and parks. What's more, research shows that national service acts as a successful bridge to full-time employment. And by the time these young people finish their national service, the job market will have plenty of room for them.
Second, a burst of national service would come at little cost to the taxpayers. Youth would receive a below-poverty stipend for their year of service and a small award to help defray the costs of college. Why not turn the educational award into a completion stipend, giving young people the incentive to complete college and graduate school after they finish their national service?
Third, the national service plan creates no new bureaucracy. Young people would serve through an existing and well-respected network of non-profits, such as Teach for America, City Year, Earth Conservation Corps, and LIFT.
Engaging young Americans in service to the nation, especially in a time of war with increased deployments to Afghanistan, would have other benefits. Young people would be taught the value of service; their civic habits over a lifetime would improve; and the social and civic connectedness of even those with jobs in their communities would rise.
In such a partisan climate, this could be the needed bipartisan effort. In the same way John McCain and Barack Obama joined hands on a national service bill on the campaign trail, and Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy co-authored the Serve America Act, leaders from both sides can place national service on steroids. Such a bold move would reduce one of our country's most urgent national challenges - unemployment - by summoning the next generation to address many more.