Phil Power | National service program could help combat coronavirus

Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan

Back in 1959, I joined up with a few other University of Michigan students in something rather ponderously called Americans Committed to World Responsibility. Founded by Al and Judy Guskin, two sociology graduate students, the idea was to see if student idealism to help the world could be linked with the student activism of the day. 

In the usual way of students, we stayed up far into the night debating, drank too much coffee and, on occasion, too much beer.  And, of course, we wrote a manifesto calling young Americans to volunteer to serve in undeveloped countries abroad.  The idea was published in the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, and drew quite a lot of attention.

Eventually it made its way to Mildred “Millie” Jeffrey, at that time a vice president of the United Auto Workers union, who passed it along to Hubert Humphrey, then a senator from Minnesota, and by him to Theodore Sorenson, a Wall Street lawyer who was writing speeches for John F. Kennedy, who was running for president.  

So, we were all surprised when at around 2 a.m. one day in October 1960 Kennedy emerged from the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor  to speak to a crowd of several thousand students.  He called on young Americans to volunteer their skills to help people around the world, although he didn’t use the phrase “Peace Corps” at the time.  (He used it later in a speech in California.)  

The idea caught on and led directly to the formation of the Peace Corps, which over time recruited 235,000 volunteers who served in 141 countries.  (Today it’s largely shut down, the victim of partisan haggling in Washington.)

But the idea of combining a mass movement of young volunteers still resonates in my mind along with periodic calls for various versions of a program of national service.  The thought is that such programs benefit not only recipient countries and American locales but also the volunteers themselves.  Bringing together all kinds of young Americans from all parts of the country is powerful, especially at a time when our heterogeneous country is torn by partisanship and geographic and demographic differences.  

And it’s an idea whose time has come around again, what with the COVID-19 crisis in our own economy and thousands of unemployed young people looking for something worthwhile to do.  By some estimates, America needs something like 300,000 contact tracers to fully overcome the COVID-19 virus.  There are lots of other examples: tutoring school students, delivering meals to shut-ins, taking temperatures at public gatherings.

So, it’s good to find that a bill doubling the current numbers for AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 to 150,000 is working its way through Congress.  So far, it’s been tough to assemble bipartisan support, although if the bill could provide for matching support for volunteers from private sources it could pick up some GOP support.  The base already exists: 88 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans are in favor, according to a report in the New York Times.  And scholars at Columbia University say every dollar invested in national service programs yields $4 in benefits.  

All of this is a heavy lift, given the riven climate in Washington, where even the most sensible and moderate proposals trigger ferocious partisan responses.  But the degree of public support, combined with the social need provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic makes the push for a national service program an exercise in common-sense national interest.

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Tue, 05/12/2020 - 8:49pm

Ahh, Phil- remember when a month or two ago I said you really should be careful about where your thinking was taking you because it was starting to sound a little bit national socialist? Maybe this national paramilitary group could all wear black or brown shirts so we could identify them as they attempt to 'trace' those who are undesirable and must be put under house arrest or have their businesses shut down?

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 7:17am

Huh? How would he remember what you said? You're just one of many anonymous posters?

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 9:38am

Funny, my reaction to the article was to immediately think of the Brown Shirts as well. In this case, a type of neighborhood watch to coordinate with State law enforcement to force compliance with edicts from Lansing. Sad that it has come to this. Perhaps a better role for these young folks would be to get back in the workforce and participate in the economy. Their risk of severe Covid 19 disease is minimal. They have lives to live. Get government out of their way.

Fri, 05/15/2020 - 12:44am

I wish I had thought of this too- when I was reading this Phil character's dreams I also was picturing brown shirt volunteers. Funny, the imagery that a phrase can invoke. Is this Phil guy a Democrat or a Republican?

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 10:49am

Good idea! There are lots of people who very much want to contribute to improving any number of aspects of society. You attributed the current shutdown of the Peace Corps program to partisan haggling in Washington. I won't dispute that there may be some truth in that statement, but my understanding is that Peace Corps programs around the world have been closed and Volunteers evacuated back to the US primarily due to the global pandemic. Ostensibly, this is for the safety of the Volunteers.
As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer still in public service, I find it very interesting that you may have had something to do with hatching the idea for the program some 60 years ago. Keep up the good work!

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 11:19am

If getting people back to work is a goal, and it should be a highly prioritized one, then perhaps FDR had the answer when he started building public projects. If a bunch of unemployed people could build the Hoover dam, then perhaps they could fill the potholes or replace a few lead water pipes.

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 11:22am

In a country that actually cared about it's citizens and took care of them (healthcare, education, housing), I'd agree that national service (focused on providing services to the elderly, rural communities, inner city youth) would be a boon. But until Americans are seen by the ruling class as anything more than expendable workers to be buried in debt and left to die in poverty when their output decreases, this should be resisted.

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 1:48pm

Nice communist idea you have there. Too bad we can't put you in a time machine and send you to back a few decades to East Germany.

middle of the mit
Wed, 05/13/2020 - 9:56pm

It is time to stop being nice to you.

Hitler's policy of Lebensraum (room for living) strongly emphasized the conquest of new lands in the East, known as Generalplan Ost, and the exploitation of these lands to provide cheap goods and labour for Germany.

Even before the war, Nazi Germany maintained a supply of slave labour. This practice started from the early days of labour camps of "unreliable elements" (German: unzuverlässige Elemente), such as the homeless, homosexuals, criminals, political dissidents, communists, Jews, and anyone whom the regime wanted out of the way. During World War II the Nazis operated several categories of Arbeitslager (labour camps) for different categories of inmates. Prisoners in Nazi labour camps were worked to death on short rations and in bad conditions, or killed if they became unable to work. Many died as a direct result of forced labour under the Nazis.[1]

After the invasion of Poland, Polish Jews over the age of 12 and Poles over the age of 12 living in the General Government were subject to forced labor.[6] Historian Jan Gross estimates that “no more than 15 percent” of Polish workers volunteered to go to work in Germany.[7] In 1942, all non-Germans living in the General Government were subject to forced labor.[8]

The largest number of labour camps held civilians forcibly abducted in the occupied countries (see Łapanka) to provide labour in the German war industry, repair bombed railroads and bridges, or work on farms. Manual labour was a resource in high demand, as much of the work that today would be done with machines was still a manual affair in the 1930s and 1940s – shoveling, material handling, machining, and many others. As the war progressed, the use of slave labour increased massively. Prisoners of war and civilian "undesirables" were brought in from occupied territories. Millions of Jews, Slavs and other conquered peoples were used as slave labourers by German corporations, such as Thyssen, Krupp, IG Farben, Bosch, Daimler-Benz, Demag, Henschel, Junkers, Messerschmitt, Siemens, and even Volkswagen,[9] not to mention the German subsidiaries of foreign firms, such as Fordwerke (a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company) and Adam Opel AG (a subsidiary of General Motors) among others.[10] Once the war had begun, the foreign subsidiaries were seized and nationalized by the Nazi-controlled German state, and work conditions there deteriorated as they did throughout German industry. About 12 million forced labourers, most of whom were Eastern Europeans, were employed in the German war economy inside Nazi Germany throughout the war.[11] The German need for slave labour grew to the point that even children were kidnapped to work in an operation called the Heu-Aktion. More than 2,000 German companies profited from slave labour during the Nazi era, including Deutsche Bank and Siemens.[12]

A class system was created amongst Fremdarbeiter ("foreign workers") brought to Germany to work for the Reich. The system was based on layers of increasingly less privileged workers, starting with well paid workers from Germany's allies or neutral countries to forced labourers from conquered Untermenschen ("sub-humans") populations. ////

Think of this like you do immigration.

He was a national conservative and initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler,[3] but he became one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches. He vehemently opposed the Nazis' Aryan Paragraph,[4] but made remarks about Jews that some scholars have called antisemitic.[5] For his opposition to the Nazis' state control of the churches, Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945.[6][7] He narrowly escaped execution. After his imprisonment, he expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis.[4] He turned away from his earlier nationalistic beliefs and was one of the initiators of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt.[4] From the 1950s on, he was a vocal pacifist and anti-war activist, and vice-chair of War Resisters' International from 1966 to 1972.[8] He met with Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War and was a committed campaigner for nuclear disarmament.[9]

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

You are outed.

Game over.

Bob Shishka
Wed, 05/13/2020 - 4:29pm

Really Phil?
You think NOW is a good time to be waxing all poetic about having created the Peace Corp? You redefine the meaning of "tone deaf". Clearly you are a "Have" that doesn't even bother paying lip service to the "Have-Nots". Really quite amazing actually?

"And it’s an idea whose time has come around again, what with the COVID-19 crisis in our own economy and thousands of unemployed young people looking for something worthwhile to do." So, according to your own words, we have thousands of unemployed "young people" just bored & looking for something to do?

I have to ask because I've always wondered, "What are the summers like out on Martha's Vineyard old boy"? Must be simply dreadful?

Here's a little dose of reality for you & all the other "completely disconnected", martini sipping elitists who come in here to pat each other on the back whilst pretending like the situation at hand really isn't all that bad. And truth be told...FOR YOU? It's probably not!

William Hall
Wed, 05/13/2020 - 9:40pm

Mr. Powers
Your idea of National Service is well-founded. It is my firm belief that all residents of our country should give 2 years starting around age 18. Choose what they will; military, teaching where needed, digging ditches for conservation, working in day care for young or old, all those jobs that "Americans" don't want. Accept the undocumented so that after National Service, take the exam and you become a citizen. You earned it.
Bill Hall, Veteran of the Ann Arbor Young Actors Guild and the U.S. Navy

Thu, 05/14/2020 - 11:05am

William Hall,
What you are describing here is compulsory service; This is the beginning of fascism/communism/whatever you want to call it.
You should read about American history and find out what the people who died for your freedom believed in.
You should read the constitution and its amendments.
You're disgusting.

middle of the mit
Sun, 05/17/2020 - 10:38pm can be sure this post has a special place in my bookmarks section!

What Revere?

Don't like the idea of a draft for the people of the nation to SERVE AND PROTECT the Nation that ALLOWS THE FREEDOM THEY HAVE?
What would those who came before you and WERE DRAFTED have to say to you?