Wednesday, August 26, 2009

National Service Does Not Lead to Civic Apathy and Disengagement

In his recent article for The Heritage Foundation, Brian Brown argues that the rise of progressive values calling citizens to national service to combat social needs and challenges has instead made the American populace apathetic and increasingly disengaged from civic society.

Brown argues that addressing social ills on a national level means that the solution must therefore also be scaled up to national levels. In doing so the common person loses a sense of identity with the cause and accomplishment in effecting a solution, since any results must necessarily be less immediate. Brown concludes that the only effective civic service must be at the local community level, and that national service programs have been failures, despite progressive governments’ attempts to rally the populace around a cause:

“…20th century Presidents frequently charged into office with calls to new wars, hoping to arouse an increasingly disconnected populace into real public-spirited participation. From the Community Conservation Corps to VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) to the Serve America Act, American leaders proved to each generation on a national stage that Americans, while privately generous, did not feel a common call to the kind of national service that…would define the newly remodeled nation. The emergence of each new program underlined the fact that the previous one had not done the trick, and each one had to be replaced or reinvented within a generation.”

At ICP, we disagree. The evidence is plain that, far from each new initiative failing, Americans have been enthusiastic about taking advantage of opportunities for national service and are clamoring for more.

In 2007, there were 158,735 applications for 75,000 AmeriCorps spots. In 2008, there were 171,085 applications. The 2009 fiscal year is still in progress, but on July 20 Tim Zimmerman, Director of Creative Content for Be The Change, announced on Change Wire (the blog of ServiceNation) that according to an unpublished Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), between November 2008 and June 2009, AmeriCorps had received 146,699 applications with a third of the year left. Clearly, Americans view national service as a valuable pathway to civic engagement, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, with its intention to vastly expand the number of opportunities available, will strengthen that pathway.

Nor have national service programs resulted in Americans feeling apathetic and lacking in a sense of accomplishment in addressing broad, society-wide social needs. AmeriCorps members work in hundreds of organizations throughout the country, serving the needs of a community to which they become closely attached, and where results are real and tangible.

Recent research by the Corporation for National and Community Service, moreover, finds that members of AmeriCorps programs have significantly greater belief in the thought that they can make a difference in their community, and are more engaged in volunteering and other civic service activities.[i]

While Brown is quite right that effective service takes place at the community level, he fails to acknowledge the ability of national government to provide the means for inspiring and connecting volunteers to service opportunities in a community, such as through, and to providing support for making those opportunities successful, rewarding, and even profitable (it is worth noting that the economic contribution of volunteer service in 2007 added up to approximately $158 billion[ii]. Specifically, volunteers leveraged through CNCS programs demonstrated an economic contribution of approximately $4.62[iii] billion on a budget of $884.5 million[iv] – a return of $4.22 return on every dollar invested in the programs.)

Furthermore, it is puzzling why Brown would consider it a failing that programs need to periodically be reinvented. Society changes over time and Americans are constantly innovating new and more effective approaches to deep-seated social challenges.

A service program that remained static would become rapidly obsolete and irrelevant, but instead national service programs have evolved over the years to keep up with societal needs. The Civilian Conservation Corps (presumably what Brown means when he speaks of the Community Conservation Corps) lives on through modern programs such as the Corps Network and the AmeriCorps National Civilian Conservation Corps. Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA), having merged with AmeriCorps to become AmeriCorps VISTA in 1993, continues to be a powerful force against poverty, as it has been for the past 40 years. Innovation is hardly synonymous with failure.

[ii] Based on information as to number of volunteer hours contributed in 2007 (8.1 billion) (, multiplied by the calculated value of volunteer work per hour in 2007 ($19.51) (

[iii] Based on information as to number of volunteer hours through CNCS in 2007 (3.9 million) (, multiplied by the calculated value of volunteer work per hour in 2007 ($19.51) (

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