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Michael J. Wilson Headshot

Returning to Core Values on Unemployment: Expand the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and the Job Corps

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Recent disappointing employment statistics confirm what job-seeking Americans already know: despite some hopeful economic signs this year, the Great Recession drags on. The pain of unemployment cuts across all categories of workers, but each group experiences it differently.

Young workers -- those just out of high school or college -- face a roughly 20 percent youth unemployment rate, and often are not only looking for a job, but a first job. Their success or failure in joining the working world has a big impact not only on their future lives, but on an American economy that relies on fresh ideas, energy and ambition to keep it vital.

Three programs of the federal government provide (predominately) young people with a first work experience while also meeting community needs and serving national interests: the Peace Corps, the Job Corps and AmeriCorps. At the urging of my organization, Americans for Democratic Action, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and five co-sponsors have introduced a resolution, H. Res. 1396, calling for a doubling of the budget of these three "corps" employment programs.

The Peace Corps allows Americans to serve their country by living and working in developing countries. Job Corps is a proven education and training program that helps young people learn a career, earn a high school diploma or GED, and find and keep a good job. And AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs that engage Americans in intensive service to meet the nation's critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment.

Positions in the three "corps" programs are not jobs for a lifetime. Direct compensation is modest (although indirect economic advantages include student loan forgiveness and room and board). But they can and do provide a refuge, a sturdy first step, for young people emerging from high school or college into the bleakest job market in 75 years.

The combined budget of the three programs proposed in the President's Fiscal Year 2011 budget is under $3 billion. This represents considerably less than one-tenth of one percent of the $3.8 trillion total federal budget. This is a short-sighted misallocation of resources at a time of pervasive unemployment, when we risk delaying -- or worse yet, wasting -- millions of potential careers.

The McDermott bill envisions corps budgets twice as large. Even at twice the budget, they can't meet all of the need. As an acknowledgment of the key role this government can play, however, it is more than hoping. It is a tangible sign of the value that we place on the new careers of today's young people, and tomorrows leaders.