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Bolstering the Economy by Serving the Common Good

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By John Bridgeland and Alan Khazei

Congress and the Administration are casting about for answers to address our flagging job market, yet an answer came to them nearly one year ago. The bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, signed into law on April 21, 2009, has put more Americans into productive work during the Great Recession. With civilian unemployment among young people near Great Depression levels, Congress should fulfill the Act's promise by ramping up national service to bridge the employment gap and invest in our people at low cost to the taxpayer.

The $18 billion jobs bill that President Obama signed into law last month is a solid down payment to spur employment, but even the President admits that this effort "is by no means enough." With the mounting fiscal crisis, any future legislation that isn't paid for, even if it's meant to stimulate the economy, will likely be stymied in Congress.

While Congress and the Administration work on another jobs bill, the Serve America Act is quietly on track to place one quarter of a million Americans into a year of national service to teach in low-income schools, help lift more Americans out of poverty, and clean up our rivers and parks. It also establishes a social innovation fund to expand promising efforts, such as the ramp up of national service for Communities in Schools and City Year to help address the high-school dropout epidemic.

As a means to both put people to work and meet pressing needs, Congress should accelerate the implementation of the Serve America Act to deploy 250,000 people in service every year by 2011.

The data points clearly to the benefits of service in helping to turn around this jobless recovery, according to recent reports from AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and Youth Corps, three of our nation's leading service groups training and placing young Americans to meet critical needs in communities across the country. At AmeriCorps, 79% of its state and national alumni reported that the organization gave them exposure to new career options. Sixty-seven percent reported that their service gave them an advantage in trying to find a job.

At Teach for America, 63% remain in the field of education after their two-year commitment ends, with nearly half remaining as teachers. Over 90% of Teach for America alumni are either pursuing a higher degree or are accounted for in some occupation ranging from law and business to work in the government and nonprofit sectors.

Participants in Youth Corps programs were more likely to have experienced more employment and higher earnings, and perform better on measures of personal and social responsibility, than those in a control group.

And the desire to serve is clear. Teach for America had more than 46,000 applicants for just 4,500 positions in their national teacher corps. This is the third straight year in which applications have grown by more than 30%. AmeriCorps experienced a 170% increase in online applications, from 91,399 in 2008 to 246,842 in 2009.

If the federal government is looking for a high-impact, fast-acting, cost-effective way to put more Americans into productive work and facilitate job training and workplace transition, it should boost national service opportunities beyond the one-fifth of one percent such efforts currently represent in the entire stimulus package.

These efforts are particularly important given recent reports by Civic Enterprises and the Center for American Progress indicating that the rate of unemployment is directly related to age. Adults age 18 to19 - a population targeted for national service programs -- have the highest rate of unemployment at an alarming 25.6%. When Franklin Roosevelt saw similar levels of youth unemployment in the 1930's, he called Congress into an emergency session to place, within a few months, 250,000 young jobless men into service on our public lands. Fulfilling the promise of the Serve America Act would enable that exact number to serve their country now, instead of ramping up slowly over the next seven years, for a modest stipend and post service award to help defray the costs of college.

Engaging young Americans in service to the nation, especially in a time of war, would teach the next generation about their duties on the home front, foster civic habits over a lifetime, and make them more employable right at a time when more jobs are becoming available after their year or two of national service.

Service is ingrained in our democracy and central to our ideals, regardless of which party is in power. The best way for the nation to move beyond the highly toxic political environment and to make real progress on unemployment is to revive the spirit of bipartisanship that moved the Act to signature in less than 100 days. The anniversary of the Serve America Act reminds us that our leaders are capable of rising to the occasion and acting quickly to give Americans more tools to address our greatest challenges. As we celebrate this landmark legislation, we should renew the promise of national and community service that can bring citizens together for the common good.

John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, was former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and USA Freedom Corps. Alan Khazei, founder and CEO of Be the Change, Inc., was co-founder of City Year. Both are co-conveners of the ServiceNation coalition of 260 organizations that led to the development of the Serve America Act.