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Phil Power | National service program could help combat coronavirus

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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