National Service – restoring purpose and active citizenship - Activate World

National Service – restoring purpose and active citizenship

Several candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary are pushing the idea of expanding national service. The idea is to encourage people, especially younger adults, to work on projects that benefit the country in various ways. The first federally funded service corps was created by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and expanded by John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. 

Lunchtime Conversations:

  • What if the sons and daughters of hedge-fund managers, tech millionaires and bankers spent a year with the children of coal miners and farmers, working in public schools or national parks or the armed forces? How could these experiences change the leadership mindset?
  • What is the best way to bring national service up to scale and infuse it into our culture? Could it become a social norm if everyone 18 years or older spend a year in national service with incentives such as loan forgiveness and tuition support?
  • Why just younger generations? How can older generations engage in national service?  How can national service be a bridge between generations?


  • In a nonpartisan poll conducted by TargetPoint, voters overwhelmingly agree that national service helps prepare young people for the workforce (80%), helps build stronger neighborhoods and communities (79%) and helps restore important values of patriotism and civic duty to young people (78%).
  • Every year, only 66,000 Americans can do a civilian service year through AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and YouthBuild. This is just a small fraction of the number who would do so if they were offered the opportunity. 
  • Serve America Together ( is a new campaign that seeks to make national service part of growing up in America.


The real benefit of national service, in addition to the good work performed, is the alumni that it produces — individuals with increased maturity, civic awareness and the empathy that comes from working with people from different backgrounds and orientations. 

AmeriCorps is the umbrella program for national service receiving both federal and private funding and has about 75,000 civilian corps members annually. Participants perform education, anti-poverty, and other work, in exchange for a modest stipend or tuition reimbursement. 

Three Democratic primary candidates have brought up expanding national service. Former Maryland Congressman, John Delaney wants to expand AmeriCorps to address climate change and improve infrastructure, among other things. “We have to restore a sense of common purpose and unity to our country,” Delaney commented. 

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., also talks about national service as a way to bridge social divides. “We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era,” he said recently.

And recently, Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts congressman, announced his proposal, which includes a specific program for climate change. Moulton also detailed the benefits that participants would receive, including tuition at public colleges or a job-training benefit of up to $24,000.

A truly ambitious service program could have two big benefits – helping restore a sense of national purpose for many young people and address the current intergenerational injustices.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, “Amer­i­can mil­len­ni­als are ap­proach­ing mid­dle age in worse fi­nan­cial shape than every liv­ing gen­er­a­tion ahead of them, lag­ging be­hind baby boomers and Gen­er­a­tion X de­spite a decade of eco­nomic growth and fall­ing un­em­ploy­ment. They have less wealth, less property, lower mar­riage rates and fewer chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to new data that com­pare gen­er­ations at sim­i­lar ages.”

Sources: Democracy JournalThe Hill, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post

Photo by William White on Unsplash