President Biden called for a new era of national service. Answering this call will boost our democracy, economy, and environment.
By Kristen Bennett, CEO of Service Year Alliance
America is grappling with existential questions about the future of our democracy, economy, and environment. Meanwhile, we lack access to people who are different from ourselves, creating a breeding ground for division and hate.
It’s time to rethink the role young people play in solving these key challenges. But we can’t just look to the next generation and expect them to solve issues that are deeply embedded in our culture. Instead, we must empower them with new ways to lead and pave a path toward a future where they feel prepared to become the future employers, politicians, educators, neighbors, citizens, and engaged leaders that America needs.
At the United We Stand summit at the White House in September, President Biden called for a new era of national service in America — one that pays a living wage and builds social cohesion among the next generation.
The President called for a $15/hour living stipend for AmeriCorps members and expanded benefits and training for those who serve to ensure they’re set up for success in future education or careers.
We were thrilled to see President Biden answer our Serve America Together campaign’s call for him to be the Service President by prioritizing national service in his Administration. This moment represents a shift in the way our country views the benefits of serving our country.
Spending a year in national service develops empathetic civic leaders, builds skills for success in a changing economy, and offers solutions for creating more resilient and sustainable communities — and we should do everything in our power to make it an opportunity for all.
First and foremost, national service is an investment in our next generation that can fuel much-needed civic renewal in America.
AmeriCorps’ commitment to partnering with federal agencies, philanthropy, and the private sector to better understand how service can bridge divides and create more engaged and empathetic citizens is a terrific start. We know national service alums leave their service as more engaged citizens who are more likely to vote, get involved in their community, and feel confident about working with their peers to solve challenges.
But if we are truly committed to making national service an option for Americans of all backgrounds to serve alongside one another, it will take real steps from the Administration — and most of all, action in Congress — to raise the AmeriCorps living allowance so that Americans from all walks of life can afford to spend a year in service.
The upcoming appropriations negotiations are an opportunity for Congress to ensure that AmeriCorps adequately supports young people throughout their service. We urge Congress to fund AmeriCorps with an additional $300 million in FY23 as a critical step toward answering the President’s call for an increased living allowance. And we urge President Biden to follow through on his commitment with a bold and robust FY24 appropriations request for AmeriCorps to support his call to service.
America desperately needs to invest in experiences that build empathy and understanding among youth, and national service has the potential to develop the next generation of empathetic civic leaders.
Second, national service can reshape our economy. Youth today are questioning the well-worn path of graduating from high school, getting a college degree, and finding a job. Much of this comes from financial concerns due to skyrocketing higher education costs, an ever-changing job market, and a desire to have a sense of purpose.
It’s time to modernize the typical pathway to opportunity for young people. With the shifting labor market and an uncertain economy, employers are in search of skilled workers and sustainable pipelines into high need sectors. We’re seeing workforce gaps in public health, education, clean energy, the federal government, and many other sectors. Investing in national service programs with embedded skills development and training has the potential to result in a generation of highly trained youth who are prepared to fill open jobs in growing industries.
National service is already critical to filling high-need jobs — nearly 25% of FEMA Corps alums go on to federal jobs at FEMA, and Public Health AmeriCorps will fill gaps in the public health workforce following the pandemic.
Finally, national service develops leaders who are passionate about protecting our environment. Right now, Puerto Rico and Florida are faced with immense damage from Hurricanes Fiona and Ian. And throughout the summer, wildfires ravaged the West, heat waves devastated cities across the globe, and droughts plagued our communities. These natural disasters are becoming more commonplace, but fortunately there’s a generation of youth eager to build a more resilient future.
We’re already seeing states step up to the plate to create their own national service corps focused on environmental resilience. Federal agencies and state and local leaders should follow their lead and look to utilize infrastructure and Inflation Reduction Act investments for national service to help tackle environmental challenges and support the energy transition. We can mobilize youth into national service to help build long-term sustainable solutions for our local communities.
As a society, we have a tendency to focus on the dystopian nature of our challenges instead of offering positive solutions. At Service Year Alliance, we envision a future where national service is part of growing up in America — our sights set on an ambitious and hopeful future for our country. We are inspired by President Biden’s call to service and his request for Congress to help make AmeriCorps an equitable opportunity that is accessible to young people of all backgrounds.
We also recognize that our sector is facing an opportunity to step into this new era where equity is prioritized and leaders are also committed to scaling and expanding national service long-term.
This dual opportunity can only be realized if Congress takes action and invests in national service. We are eager to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle — as well as with philanthropy and cross-sector leaders — to make this vision a reality and begin to foster a new generation of engaged leaders for America’s future.
In order to reach our ambitious vision, we must build a strong foundation for the future of national service in this new era.
Kristen Bennett is the CEO of Service Year Alliance, a nonprofit working to make a year of service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans. She is an AmeriCorps VISTA alum.