Friday, October 1, 2010

Keep Expanding National Service

Injustice—according to Alan Khazei, founder of City Year and author of Big Citizenship, those who partake in national service come away with an acute sense of it. These same people become Khazei’s ‘Big Citizens,’ a term which he uses to describe “anyone who is willing to dedicate themselves to a cause higher than self interest.” The citizen is the central focus of Khazei’s work and he believes harnessing the power of the citizens to affect change should be high on our government’s priorities list.

In an age where mere mention of expansion of government programs leads to media firestorms about the size of government, how can the federal government afford to fund programs which pay volunteer work? Khazei makes the convincing argument that America cannot afford to do otherwise.

Every major progressive movement has succeeded on the backs of ordinary citizens committed to a higher cause. Khazei cites the practical reasons for a strong national service policy:

· Unemployment levels remain high in the recession economy and the young adult demographic has proportionally been hurt the most—service programs can provide paying jobs at a low cost while developing better citizens and meeting critical community needs

· Demand for service opportunities has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, with the number of applicants to AmeriCorps far exceeding available openings.

· Need for service is indisputably widespread, as 14.3% of Americans now live in poverty

In a sector where organizational growth becomes stunted by lack of intermediate and high level financing, Khazei believes the government must play a critical role in finding successful local models and scaling them up to the national level. Though critics worry about government funds displacing donations from the private sector, Khazei’s experience has been just the opposite. Government spending spurs more private investment—for City Year, each public dollar has been more than matched by a private one. And for each $1 spent on national service, there is a $4 return to community benefits and improvements.

Expanding service programs can afford conscientious citizens who want to act an opportunity to make concrete contributions to their communities. With poverty and income inequality rates reaching alarming levels, now is the time to commit to a generation of leaders in civic engagement.

To see how AmeriCorps programs across the country are addressing needs such as poverty reduction, see ICP's recent publication Transforming Communities through Service: A Collection of 52 of the Most Innovative AmeriCorps State Programs in the US.

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