Andy Kroll

August 20, 2008

Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama don’t agree on much. The economy, Social Security, the Iraq war and foreign policy, immigration reform, alternative energy, health care and gay rights–on every one of these contested issues the two candidates clash, frequently sparring on the campaign trail.

However, there’s one issue on which the plain-spoken McCain and the self-confident Obama do agree: The importance of national service to the future of the United States.

This shared belief is best exemplified in the two presidential candidates’ ambitious, though uniquely different, visions for the future expansion of national service organizations.

Record Numbers

Today’s service organizations report staggering increases in applicants and participants. The number of volunteers serving abroad in the Peace Corps–over 8,000 in 74 countries–is at its highest in 37 years. Teach for America, one of the nation’s largest non-profits, reports that its 2008 class of teachers is the largest in the organization’s 18-year history by almost 30 percent. Similarly, YouthBuild, a non-profit in which low-income youth work toward their high school diplomas while building affordable housing, has had to turn away thousands of young people due to a lack of space. All this as federal funding to service organizations continues to decrease. But McCain and Obama, each with notable service experience, are pledging to put the power of the federal government back behind service organizations and make public service a central tenet of their campaigns.

Obama recently emphasized this priority in his address to students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States,” said Obama, earning comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 “Ask Not” inauguration speech. “This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program,” he continued. “This will be a central cause of my presidency.”

Similarly, in McCain’s recent commencement speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, he told graduates, “If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you are disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them… [T]here are many public causes where your service can make our country a stronger, better one than we inherited.” Both candidates spoke on college campuses before crowds of young people, a clear acknowledgment that no service plan proposed by any politician or party will succeed without the support and participation of young Americans.

McCain’s Promises

Unlike Obama, McCain has yet to announce a national service plan as part of his candidacy. He is, however, a longtime supporter of AmeriCorps, as seen in his 2001 “Call to Service Act” in which he and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) proposed the expansion of the organization to 250,000 volunteers, many of whom would focus on homeland security-related issues.

In lieu of a current plan, McCain’s October 2001 Washington Monthly op-ed can be read as his vision for the future of national service. In “Putting the ‘National’ in National Service,” McCain argued for the expansion of not only AmeriCorps but also the National Civilian Community Corps and City Year, both of which are smaller service organizations within AmeriCorps. He also wrote in support of returning Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs to college campuses across the country, going so far as to suggest that Congress “consider linking financial aid to the willingness of colleges to allow ROTC back on campus.”

Obama’s Pledges

Obama, on the other hand, has released a detailed and ambitious service plan for the current campaign. First, he wants to significantly expand many existing service organizations, proposing an increase in the size of AmeriCorps volunteers, from 75,000 to 250,000, and doubling the Peace Corps’ total number of volunteers to 16,000 by 2011. YouthBuild, currently reaching approximately (PDF) 10,000 youth per year, would be expanded to accept 50,000.

Obama’s plan would also create multiple new service organizations. He proposes the establishment of a Classroom Corps, placing volunteers in classrooms to help teachers and students; a Health Corps to improve public health outreach; a Veteran Corps, providing hospitals, nursing homes and homeless shelters with volunteers to assist veterans; a Homeland Security Corps, in which volunteers would help with disaster preparation and response; and a Green Jobs Corps, providing disadvantaged youth with training, job and service opportunities working with “green” and energy-efficient technologies. Obama would also establish the “America’s Voice Initiative,” a program sending Americans fluent in foreign languages to volunteer abroad and expand public diplomacy.

His goal is that all middle and high school students complete 50 hours of community service each year. College students who complete 100 hours of community service in one year, under the Obama plan, would be rewarded with a $4,000 tax credit. Additionally, both McCain and Obama have stated that college and university work-study programs need to place more students in community service jobs as opposed to positions in college libraries or cafeterias.

Obama’s plan is not without detractors. His proposal to “set a goal” that all middle and high school students complete community service has been interpreted by some as a requirement. Conservative pundit Jonah Golberg read Obama’s goal as “forced servitude.” The Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, Bob Barr, similarly argued that “Washington politicians should not be telling schools across America how many hours their students should work, and in what kinds of jobs.”

Who Pays?

Both candidates’ plans beg the question of how such expansions would be funded. In his Washington Monthly op-ed, McCain wrote that “we must encourage the corporate sector and the philanthropic community to provide funding for national service, with federal challenge grants and other incentives.”

Obama says much the same. He, too, proposes soliciting private sector investments to support service organizations, but he also suggests the creation of a new agency within the Corporation for National and Community Service that would be “dedicated to building the capacity and effectiveness of the nonprofit sector.”

At this point, McCain’s and Obama’s plans to pay for their service expansions are a bit vague. What’s certain is that any funding increase would first need Congressional approval. Considering the continued decreases in federal funding for existing service organizations and the failure of past service (PDF) legislation, whomever takes office in 2009 will need to conjure up some financially savvy strategies in order to realize such ambitious goals.

For Steve Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America, (YSA) it’s imperative that the next president do all he can to increase funding and investment in service organizations. Culbertson believes that the best investment the government can make is in the lives of young Americans who volunteer. “The investment in young people’s aspirations creates a triple bottom line,” he says. “You not only invest and get an immediate return from their service, but you help the community and you also get extraordinary benefits back to the person who’s serving.”

Culbertson says that the vast majority of the US’s approximately $300 billion philanthropy sector comes from the donations of those who volunteer and are more civically engaged. “It’s the people already on playing field, the volunteers, who are writing the checks,” he says. “And many of them were involved in service as young people.” By not providing adequate funding for service organizations, Culbertson says the government is neglecting a tremendous chance to improve the well-being of the entire country. “We are really missing the boat on the opportunity to engage young people in an activity that shows that if we can engage them while they’re young, that this will be paid back in the kind of engagement and the kind of philanthropy that has made America great in the past.”

Most importantly, Culbertson stresses, expanding federal funding of service opportunities will ensure that the ideals upon which this country was founded will continue to thrive. “The bottom line,” he says, “is that service has a critical role to play in the kind of country we all want to live in and in the participatory democracy that is described by our founding fathers in the documents and government they created.”

Andy Kroll is a freelance journalist living in New York City. His writing has appeared on, Campus Progress, and The Progressive Review.