12/14/2009 02:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Put Service on Steroids

by John Bridgeland and Bruce Reed

As America struggles to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the nation's top priority is finding jobs for the 10 percent of men and women out of work. An even more staggering figure often gets lost in the debate: four million unemployed people between the ages of 16 and 24, and record teen unemployment of 27%. If the U.S. wants to make a real dent in unemployment, young people are the place to start - and a sweeping call to national service may be the answer.

With the private sector short on certainty and Washington short on cash, creating jobs isn't easy these days. That's why targeting young people makes so much sense. Not only are jobless youth in ample supply, but they're cheap to hire, they're eager to serve, and a national network of non-profits and service organizations already exists to put them to work.

Faced with record youth unemployment in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt called Congress into emergency session to create a Civilian Conservation Corps to bring together two threatened resources - young men who were out of work and public lands beset by soil erosion and declining numbers of trees. Within a few months, he had 250,000 young men serving in national parks and forests and quickly doubled that number by year's end. Over the term of FDR's national service program, more than three million young men planted three billion trees, constructed 97,000 miles of fire roads, and built drainage systems for 84 million acres of agricultural land. Many of the youth who served for the one or two years in the CCC went on to find good jobs in areas related to their service.

Seventy-five years later, the youth unemployment picture looks remarkably similar. What has changed, however, is that the nation has well-oiled service programs in place, thanks to the extraordinary growth of national and community service over the past two decades. And thanks to the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which President Obama signed into law earlier this year, Congress and the administration have the authority to enlist 250,000 young people in tackling the nation's challenges.

With youth unemployment at record levels, it's time to put national service on steroids. Instead of slowly ramping up to 250,000 national service opportunities over five years, the President and Congress should at least double that number now. At a fraction of the cost of other stimulus proposals, the national service injection would offer the country a hat trick.

First, it would put half a million unemployed youth into productive work right away, benefiting the nation and themselves. Imagine young people teaching, tutoring and mentoring students in America's lowest-performing schools; building Habitat for Humanity Homes and KaBoom playgrounds in impoverished neighborhoods; strengthening the capacity of food banks and soup kitchens to reach more hungry Americans; and cleaning up America's rivers and parks. What's more, research shows that national service acts as a successful bridge to full-time employment. That's especially true now, if it can provide one or two years of service work during the toughest time to find jobs. By the time young people finish their national service, the job market will have plenty of room for them.

Second, a burst of national service would come at little cost to the taxpayers. Youth would receive a below-poverty stipend for their year of service and a small award to help defray the costs of college. Why not turn the educational award into a completion stipend, giving young people the incentive to complete college and graduate school after they finish their national service? That could help stem an alarming college dropout rate - and the entire plan would cost about $8 billion, less than 1 percent of this year's economic recovery package.

Third, the national service plan creates no new bureaucracy. Instead of working through government, young people would serve through an existing and well-respected network of non-profits, such as Teach for America, City Year, Earth Conservation Corps, and LIFT.

Engaging young Americans in service to the nation, especially in a time of war with increased deployments to Afghanistan, would have other benefits. Young people would be taught the value of service; their civic habits over a lifetime would improve; and the social and civic connectedness of even those with jobs in their communities would rise.

As we move into this holiday season, the President and Congress can give the country a truly bipartisan gift. In the same way John McCain and Barack Obama joined hands on a national service bill on the campaign trail, and Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy co-authored the Serve America Act, leaders from both sides can place national service on steroids. Such a bold move would reduce one of our country's most urgent national challenges - unemployment -- by summoning the next generation to address many more.

John Bridgeland and Bruce Reed were Directors of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Presidents George W. Bush and William J. Clinton, respectively.