- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

OP-ED:

Talk of bipartisanship outpaces action these days, as the vote on the stimulus largely broke along party lines. But one bill moving through the Congress, the Hatch-Kennedy Serve America Act, can bring Republicans and Democrats together by finding common ground around what made America strong in the first place - active citizens helping their neighbors. President Obama saw its potential when he singled out the bill as something Congress should get to him quickly.

For the last eight years, we have worked to reposition the government’s support of national and community service from the perception of paying federal “volunteers” to a newer model where government provides infrastructure support to community groups recruiting and training traditional volunteers. Today, for example, 75,000 national service members are responsible for leveraging more than 2.2 million volunteers in “small platoons” across the country.

The Serve America Act has a lot in it to attract Republicans and has already garnered the support of senators from John McCain to Judd Gregg.

(1) The legislation puts its faith in civil society, not distant government bureaucracies, by providing a new volunteer generation fund to ignite those platoons. Help delivered by a compassionate neighbor will always have an edge over new bureaucratic interventions designed in Washington. The beauty of the Serve America Act is that the vast majority of these efforts will be generated by local organizations responding to community needs.

(2) Young Americans, disproportionately harmed by this economy - with unemployment among youth at 21 percent - will be given new opportunities to serve. Research shows that those young adults most at risk in our communities gain more by serving others than they do by being passive recipients of services.

Young and older Americans alike will have opportunities, based on needs and decisions at the state and local levels, to help tackle our toughest challenges, such as the high-school dropout epidemic and giving a hand up to more Americans in poverty.

Americans in national service efforts give a year of their lives to aid others in exchange for a stipend below minimum wage. In the process, they gain valuable skills that help them secure permanent employment at higher wages. Sounds like a better bargain than a stimulus bill that cost $225,000 per new job created.

(3) We are proud that government support of service efforts no longer discriminates against the faith-based nonprofits often closest to the needs of the vulnerable. Groups like Habitat for Humanity, the Notre Dame Ace Program for urban teachers, and Amachi could increase their capacities to mobilize talented people to meet urgent needs with no new bureaucracy.

(4) The bill will require that any new funding be offset from other programs - and there are more than enough failed government programs that could be converted to the Serve America form of community support. Fiscal conservatives should advocate that new programs whenever possible require support for local service programs.

(5) And finally, the bill creates accountability for results with new measures to test the impact of these programs on real problems and to assess the civic health of our communities, states and nation every year.

When we think of service exemplars, most Americans rightfully first consider our nation’s veterans. But every American can do something to give back to their country on the home front.

Our country faces enormous challenges this year - challenges from which government cannot buy our way out. But we can help those who are hurting and rekindle the American spirit with an intentional effort to stimulate and support service.

The Serve America Act is a chance for more Americans to show how we can restore our fractured patriotism by helping neighbors in need. Especially in hard times, that is a mission both Republicans and Democrats should embrace.

Stephen Goldsmith is professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, former chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service and former mayor of Indianapolis. John Bridgeland is chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, co-leader of ServiceNation, and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush.