Service Year Alliance Statement for the Record for the House Armed Services Committee Hearing on:
Recommendations and Report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service
Thursday, May 19, 2021
Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Rogers and members of the Armed Services Committee,
Service Year Alliance is pleased to submit this testimony for the record for the hearing on the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service.
Service Year Alliance is an organization working to make a year of paid, full-time national service — a service year — a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans. We do that through our Serve America Together campaign, which brings together a coalition of military and civilian service organizations, among others, to advocate to make civilian national service part of growing up in America. We also support service year programs and help stand up new innovative models, and maintain the only online portal — ServiceYear.org — that connects young people to all different types of available service year opportunities, including AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, YouthBuild and non-federally funded programs.
We were thrilled by the establishment of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service and grateful to see the bold vision it outlined in its final Inspired to Serve report. We strongly support the Commission’s vision of a lifetime of continued service and specifically of one million young people serving in civilian service year opportunities.
Our nation is beginning to see the path out of a pandemic that has affected every aspect of our lives. The weaknesses of our public health system were exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19. Education has been disrupted and children will continue to deal with the impact of learning loss. Millions of Americans do not know where they will find their next meal. At the same time, communities across the country are dealing with the impacts of climate change in the form of fires, hurricanes, and coastal degradation.
A generation of young people are increasingly disconnected from education and employment. Millions graduated from college and found no job prospects. Others who might have gone on to higher learning have either chosen not to or been unable to for a variety of reasons. The impact on educational opportunities has been most felt by economically disadvantaged youth and youth of color.
Finally, the last few years have shown us how polarized our country has become.
National service is uniquely suited to address all of these challenges. National service corps members serving with programs like AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, and the conservation corps are already mentoring and tutoring students, supporting vaccine distribution efforts, protecting our public lands, and serving at food banks across the country. Through their service, these young people are developing leadership and professional skills that put them on a pathway to higher education and careers while becoming an engaged and culturally competent generation of leaders who are more empathetic and better understand people who are different than themselves.
Their service also has a proven return on investment, which is as high as $11 for every federal dollar spent. That ROI can grow even larger when communities come together to coordinate efforts, as can be seen in Flint, MIchigan, where a service accelerator has created a return of investment of $35.90 for every federal dollar spent.
During the last year, Congress has taken up national service as a cost-effective, bipartisan solution to help address the challenges facing our nation with bills like the CORPS Act and the Commission’s Inspire to Serve Act. The American Rescue Plan Act that passed Congress earlier this year includes an additional $1 billion to help expand current national service efforts — a critical downpayment on the kind of growth we and the Commission envision for national service.
To truly achieve the Commission’s vision of national service we believe it must:
- Exist at scale, engaging at least one million young Americans in civilian national service annually
- Address America’s unmet needs
- Bridge divides and fuel civic renewal
- Be an opportunity for all
- Build pathways to long-term success for individuals who serve through benefits and connectivity to future education and careers
We were pleased to see the Commission address many of these fundamentals.
Our top recommendations to the Biden Administration and to Congress very much align with the Commission’s recommendations and share the crucial premise at the heart of the Commission’s work that military, national, and public service are inherently connected in creating a civic-minded America.
We outline these recommendations below. More information about them can be found in our recently released white paper called Reimagining National Service: A Roadmap to a Service Presidency.
Our recommendations include:
- Lead a Whole-of-Government Effort to Put Americans Into National Service to Meet Our Country’s Urgent Needs:
We encourage the Administration to appoint a National Service Advisor to lead a task force of federal agencies to assess how they can integrate national service into their plans to address America’s urgent unmet needs and build interagency corps in partnership with the AmeriCorps Agency (formerly known as the Corporation for National and Community Service) and ensure that synergies are created between military, national, and public service.
This could be effectively done, as the Commission recommended, by establishing a Council on Military, National, and Public Service within the Executive Office of the President. That office could coordinate between different agencies on recruitment, awareness campaigns, and transitions between different types of service. The Council could then oversee the implementation of these interagency corps.
A recent cost-benefit analysis has shown that communities that have an infrastructure in place — a collaboration of programs who meet regularly, pool resources like funds and trainings, and tackle community problems in coordination — deliver service more effectively, have a higher return on investment, and have better outcomes for corps members. Investing in opportunities to develop and maintain such 24 local infrastructure, and building in ways that this infrastructure can sustain, like Service Year Alliance’s Impact Communities, would make national service far stronger.
The Task Force should also be mandated to look at best practices for building such an ecosystem of investment in national service, in particular looking at the role that Impact Communities can play in strengthening and expanding national service.
We encourage this committee to consider establishing this Council through this year’s defense authorization bill.
- Flood the Nonprofit Sector and Under-Resourced Communities with Critical Support Through a Service Year Fellowship and New Grantee On-Ramps:
We support the Commission’s idea of establishing a fellowship program through AmeriCorps that allows flexibility for smaller nonprofits to nimbly fill gaps, manage volunteer labor, and shore up staff. Service year fellowships would allow access to corps members to smaller organizations — including faith-based organizations and organizations in rural or underserved areas — who would not otherwise have the organizational and grant-making infrastructure to compete and receive this support through existing AmeriCorps funding. Independent Sector has found that nonprofit organizations have lost over a million positions because of COVID-19 and 7 percent will permanently close. These fellowship positions can provide a surge of human capital to nonprofits while creating a pathway to jobs in the nonprofit sector when the economy recovers.
Further, to ensure all communities have access to national service as a resource, AmeriCorps and State Service Commissions should significantly invest in new program development and new grantee on-ramps for underserved communities and organizations. Currently, the vast majority of new programs are developed by state commissions. As new sources of funding come in, it is critical that commissions have the flexibility to respond to the needs in their states and communities, and build upon the successes and real areas of opportunity that surface — especially over the past year of the pandemic.
Further, increasing community access to national service requires investing in modernization and user-centric grantmaking processes and technology, creating planning grants geared toward under-resourced and diverse communities, updating the match scale and/or grant structure for new grantees, increasing the maximum cost per member as needed, and prioritizing incubation partners to help with grant management and compliance.
Finally, national service should be part of a lifetime continuum of service. The Administration should develop a continuum of service and civic engagement for individuals, starting with service learning and thoughtful civics education, which can set young people on a path toward service, through to national service and then alumni engagement, including a Reserve Corps that allows alumni to hone their skills and be available when the nation needs them, and to public service as a career.
- Expand National Service Opportunities and Stabilize & Strengthen AmeriCorps:
As a first step, we support the Commission’s recommendation that the Serve America Act authorization of 250,000 AmeriCorps positions be fully funded. Ultimately, like the Commission, we would like to see these positions expanded to 1 million a year. In this difficult financial environment, we also want to ensure programs can sustain and grow by addressing challenges with matching funds. AmeriCorps has waived the match requirement for FY21 to allow nonprofits to use their federal funds even if they are not able to fully match them. We need, however, to also look for other opportunities to match these funds.
- Raise Awareness and Enable Matching of Young Americans Through State-of-the-Art Technology:
Historically, the national service field has greatly depended on word of mouth as a core recruitment strategy to bring the next generation into service. For this reason, the majority of Americans still aren’t aware of the opportunities that national service can provide for themselves, their children, or their family and friends. We support the Commission’s recommendation of an awareness campaign that directs individuals to the diversity of positions across the country to serve. It will help to connect the many young people in our country whose paths have been disrupted by the pandemic, with opportunities to give back and gain skills. In particular, it will be critical to ensure this campaign utilizes both traditional channels as well as digital channels to reach the target audiences and deliver them directly to opportunities to serve.
The Commission called for a central platform for all service types in their report, as a means of making it easier for all young Americans to serve regardless of whether it is through military or civilian service. Service Year Alliance, through the generous support of philanthropy, has already made significant investments in technology and best practices over the past six years to meet this need with the development and launch of ServiceYear.org. This platform is a state-of-the-art online marketplace that houses service year opportunities — including AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other non-federally funded positions — and makes it easy for users to browse positions, get matched with opportunities based on their interests, and apply to serve. Leveraging the technology and learnings from this experience would enable the administration to quickly roll out a cost-effective solution to support this national awareness campaign and match young Americans with the right service opportunity for them.
- Make National Service Positions Accessible to All Young Americans:
We strongly support the Commission’s recommendations on increasing the living allowance and wraparound services as fundamental to making national service something that is truly accessible to all young people.
Currently, AmeriCorps members receive stipends that are tied to the poverty level. These stipends make the choice of national service virtually impossible for young people coming from lower-income families who will have no choice but to choose employment opportunities over the possibility of building long-term skills through national service. Even those who can choose to serve oftentimes depend on food stamps. A 175% increase from the current AmeriCorps VISTA living allowance, with adjustments for regional cost of living, would allow all young Americans to choose this pathway to empowerment and potential careers. The tax on stipends, which creates an additional barrier to participation in national service by significantly limiting the amount of money corps members take home, should be eliminated.
Further, as the Commission pointed out, wraparound services like housing and childcare would make it possible for more young people to make a choice to serve. We also support raising the Segal Education Award to make it a worthwhile investment, making it more flexible, and eliminating the tax on it to match other education awards provided by the federal government.
We agree with the Commission’s recommendation to “direct the CEO of CNCS to work with the American Association State Colleges and Universities and the National Governors Association to encourage members to offer in-state tuition rates to all national service alumni.” The Agency’s Schools for Service is one effort to accomplish this and some states are already looking at or have passed such legislation, including a recent new law in Nebraska. We would also like to see, as the Commission recommended, that “all State Governors and State legislatures require public institutions of higher education to offer all national service alumni and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) application fee waivers and/or course credit incentives in recognition of service experience.”
We strongly encourage the Agency and Congress to look at ways to make it easier for justice-involved youth to participate in national service. While AmeriCorps does not bar most justice-involved youth from participating in its programs, current requirements can be seen as too great a commitment from programs, which simply choose not to work with this community. The onerous criminal history check process required has also proven to be not only an unnecessary financial and overhead burden for AmeriCorps and grantees, but also a significant barrier to justice-involved individuals applying for positions.
We also encourage you to look at ways to allow young people in America in other immigrations statuses — those with DACA, temporary protected status, or DED, and refugees and asylees — to serve their communities through federal national service programs.
- Set Young People Up for Success:
The United States is going through a transition in its economy to high-skilled jobs just as many low-skilled jobs have been wiped out by the pandemic. One way to address this challenge is by using national service positions as a tool to create pathways to employment and to the middle class. National service positions cannot under law compete with existing jobs, nor should they impede new job creation. Rather, there should be a focus on integrating skills training, certifications, and credentialing into programs and working with institutions of higher learning, workforce development organizations, unions, and employers to help national service positions create pipelines to 21st-century jobs.
These paths should include developing programs or trainings that allow national service programs to be designated as “civic apprenticeships” that help young people move into the nonprofit sector as well as integrating trainings and credentialing into other high-need sectors. Further, AmeriCorps should also work with colleges and universities to accredit programs that can provide college credits or skills training that help young people transition from national service programs to higher education.
Finally, as the Commission recommends, the new Administration should allow service year corps members to receive the same preferential hiring and non-competitive eligibility for federal jobs as returned Peace Corps volunteers, Public Land Corps, and AmeriCorps VISTA members. The federal government provides a non-competitive hiring authority for individuals who complete the Peace Corps, Public Land Corps, and AmeriCorps VISTA. By extending this authority to everyone who completes a year of national service, the federal government would not only incentivize national service but provide a pathway into government for highly motivated, civically minded young Americans.
Opportunities for the House Armed Services Committee:
Not all of these recommendations fall under the jurisdiction of this Committee. However, because of the important linkages that the Commission identified between military, national and public service, there are some key things that the committee could do. In particular, the Committee should authorize the creation of the White House Office on Military, National and Public Service.
We encourage you to also look at ways to integrate recruitment among different service opportunities. Each military service has a recruiting command, while AmeriCorps has almost no recruitment capacity — even though 71 percent of young people are not qualified to serve in the military. Better integrating these efforts would capture the enthusiasm for service among young people and help them find the right path forward to serve their country.
Finally, service members and their families have already demonstrated a propensity to serve our country. There are many options for providing them with other service opportunities. Specifically, we encourage you to use the bill to establish a military family interagency service corps between the Department of Defense and AmeriCorps. Military families already have a high propensity for service — in fact, they already do serve alongside their service members. They also move frequently, meaning that they are often far from their extended families. Further, the frequent moves make it hard for military spouses to work. The Blue Star Families 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report found that military spouse under- and unemployment — consistently a top issue for active-duty spouse respondents — may have intensified due to COVID-19 impacts. A military family service corps would allow spouses and adult dependents to serve in their communities and build networks and relationships, while putting them on a pathway to careers. If implemented correctly, this career pathway would include the kinds of credentials and skills necessary for portable careers.
We also encourage you to allow service members to participate in civilian national service programs as part of the on-the-job training that they may participate in in their last 180 days on active duty in the DoDSkillBridge program.
As the commission so clearly demonstrated, national service has the power to bring Americans together in common purpose — whether that is on a forward operating base overseas or in a health center or food bank in their community. Imagine what our nation could be if every young person had such an opportunity.