07/18/2011 11:48 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2011

Investing in National Service

Much air time has been given to the debate over the national debt ceiling occurring in Washington today, and it remains to be seen whether Congress will decide to slash funding for discretionary programs or eliminate tax breaks in the face of the nation's current economic crisis. Or both.

Here's a different frame: At some point, the nation's policymakers must not only struggle with the question of what to cut, they must also make critical decisions about where to invest.

There is a clear consensus that our nation's government can no longer continue spending at the current rate. To put the nation's economy on the path to recovery, the federal government must find a way to cut spending and at the same time invest in strategies that create jobs and address problems in a cost-effective way.

The way I see it, we can invest wisely now, or pay much more later. Left unchecked, problems including the high school dropout epidemic and lack of access to affordable housing will cost the nation trillions of dollars over time, putting the nation at even greater economic risk. It's time to invest in strategies and programs that create jobs and address the problems that are dragging our economy down and putting our country's future in jeopardy.

There are smart investments the federal government can make that will create jobs, guarantee a return on taxpayer investment and power organizations that are finding innovative and cost effective approaches to social challenges in education, health, veteran reintegration and clean energy. National service is one of them.

National service provides citizen-driven, cost-effective solutions to some of our nation's greatest challenges, while creating jobs and investing in communities.

Prioritizing national service means prioritizing jobs. Our alarmingly high unemployment rate, particularly among American youth, is proof that we need inventive plans to create jobs as well as pathways to work. In the last year, 80,000 Americans -- many of them young -- earned a small stipend for a year of hard work tackling some of the very issues that continue cost the nation in real taxpayer dollars. National service not only accounts for tens of thousands of jobs, it also provides valuable training and creates pathways to careers.

But the federal government can't do it alone. We need to prioritize investments that will guarantee a return on taxpayer dollars and scale what works. Service organizations are required to compete annually for funding and to match that federal investment with funding from private and philanthropic sources. In the last year alone, the private sector contributed more than $800 million to match the federal government's investment in national service nearly dollar for dollar. If the goal is to reduce government spending while addressing the problems that cost our government and communities, we should strive to get the best return on our dollar. National service provides a guaranteed return on taxpayer investment; it makes measurable differences in local communities and leverages $800 million in investments from the private sector and other non-federal sources annually. It's a model for smart investing that our government should support.

National service programs provide the much needed human capital for hundreds of private nonprofit organizations including Teach For America, Boys and Girls Clubs, City Year, Public Allies, Jumpstart and Habitat for Humanity to do essential work in communities across the country. One need look no further than the recent tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa, where national service members have been the critical infrastructure in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. For one important example, if federal grants for national service were to be eliminated, who would organize the thousands of volunteers, help families recover as much of their lives and belongings as possible and offer help and hope to those who have lost so very much?

Our nation's policymakers have some tough choices to make. In today's economic realities, we can't afford to make investments that don't help create jobs, deliver results and sustain our communities. We should focus on making federal investments that are leveraged with private support and power the effective organizations delivering results against the issues affecting our communities and our country.

Now is the time to invest in national service.