ServeNext.org Blog

Expanding the Theoretical Case for National Service

Posted by benganzfried on November 11, 2009

A fitting topic for my inaugural blog post is why the promotion of national service is worth our time, energy and treasure (wealth) in the first place?  To be clear, the issue is not whether voluntary national service is good (which most would agree that it is); rather, the issue is whether, given our scarce resources, national service is more worthy of our time, energy, and money than other causes.  Broadly speaking, political, economic, and intangible factors indicate that funding national service programs is one of the most reliable long-term investments we as a country can make.

In the political realm, the national service movement’s contribution to strengthening our democracy is almost unparalleled in three capacities.  Consider the thousands who donated time, blood, and resources to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.  These volunteers were one part of the larger relief effort also aided by the government of the United States, the international community, and private companies—but these volunteers could fill positions that otherwise would have gone unfulfilled such as letting families into their homes and accepting these families into their local communities.  Second, the national service movement helps citizens gain a broader perspective on responsibility to the greater community.  Third, more national service opportunities mean that more Americans will interact with people from very different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.  Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s most recent book laments the fact that the rich and the poor hardly even share a common transportation sector (the rich fly on airplanes and drive cars while the poor take the bus and other city transportation).

Economically, national service offers a huge return on investments.  Alan Khazei cites studies showing that “every dollar invested in AmeriCorps returns at least $1.50 to $3.90 in direct, measurable benefits.”  Moreover, national service offers a platform to attack an array of persisting social challenges that would otherwise go unaddressed by our economic system.  Additionally, investing in human capital is perhaps the best investment that a government can make.  The more citizens who feel a direct tie to building up this country, the stronger the economy will become.

For the intangible sphere, I am referring to how volunteers and the people that they help feel as a result of their relationship to national service.  The literature in positive psychology (the study of what makes people happy) clearly indicates that expressions of gratitude and a strong sense of community engagement greatly increase an individual’s happiness.  An individual is responsible for his/her own happiness and the government is not; however, given the high rates of depression and the fact that people are more productive and successful when they are happy—there are good reasons to believe that the government would benefit tremendously if more citizens were happier.  The evidence that service leads to happiness is clear– from Robert Putnam’s findings that social gatherings and support lead to increased happiness, to the longitudinal study exploring the impact of AmeriCorps on corps members.  This study finds that former AmeriCorps members are much more happy as compared to the control group of those who expressed interest in AmeriCorps but never did it.

Let me put my proposition simply: by deciding to expand the national service movement, the public will experience political benefits, economic benefits, increased solidarity, and increased individual happiness.  Additionally, otherwise unaddressed problems will be solved.  In my experience, government policy is largely shaped by our ideas about why we have government at all.  Our conceptions of property rights to this day are still influenced by John Locke; our conceptions of evidence in law are still largely influenced by Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century idea that no evidence should be excluded during a trial.  National service programs have many more applicants than they can currently fund and there is much work to be done at a grassroots level to organize these citizen volunteers; but what is really badly needed are theoretical ideas that will support the effort to expand national service.  Just as the abolitionist movement was aided in the realm of ideas by Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison (among others), so too does the national service movement need to engage in the realm of ideas if it is to successfully complete its project.

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