Save Civilian Service -- It Boosts Local Economies & Strengthens Communities

09/01/2011 12:11 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2011

Most Americans understand the term "military service" and appreciate the countless contributions and sacrifices of the nearly 2.7 million Americans serving in the armed forces. The concept of "civilian service," however, is far less clear. Approximately 63.4 million volunteers provide benefits to their communities every year for an estimated value of $173 billion. They are engaged in service! While civilian service can be episodic in nature, as it is for the vast majority of the aforementioned 63.4 million volunteers, it can also be a full time commitment. For purposes of these comments, I will focus on those who are serving full time over a sustained period and producing tangible benefits both for their communities and for themselves.

Like military service, civilian service boosts pride among those who serve and can help make people feel a profound sense of connection to their country. It also provides countless benefits for communities and their residents.

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) serves as a clearing house for federal funding that supports civilian service. Each year, its grants provide funding to support numerous organizations nationwide. The names of those organizations might be familiar to you, but the unified flag of civilian service that they operate under may not have been until now.

For instance you may know City Year and Teach for America, national organizations that bring young, enthusiastic teachers and tutors into communities and schools of need. Beyond educational settings, organizations like Youthbuild USA and Habitat for Humanity engage a diverse range of individuals in efforts to construct houses for low-income families. An organization called Public Allies develops diverse leaders, a much needed commodity in today's world. Community Health Corps promotes health care for America's underserved, while developing tomorrow's health care workforce. My organization, The Corps Network, represents 158 Service and Conservation Corps that engage diverse groups of young people in a wide range of projects that strengthen communities and restore the environment in 46 states and the District of Columbia.

The common bond we and many other similar organizations share is that we promote civilian service. Our funding sources are as diverse as our missions and the dollars we receive from CNCS are essential and highly leveraged.

Many engaged in civilian service are young people who have never before had jobs. These service experiences give them valuable job skills, credentials, their first wages or stipends, and boost their self-esteem in a structured environment -- much like military service. With funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Corps Network recently released a publication titled A Green Career Pathways Framework: Postsecondary and Employment Success for Low-Income, Disconnected Youth. What's relevant about the publication to this discussion is a central idea: civilian service programs can serve as "on-ramps" not only to jobs but to careers and life-long success.

Earlier this year, as part of budget cuts associated with the continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government, CNCS received substantial cuts that eliminated the Learn and Serve program and substantially cut the RSVP program (an important part of Senior Volunteer Programs). These cuts indicate that the threat of more funding cuts to civilian service is real.

At a time when many state governments face huge budget shortfalls, civilian service programs can help fill the gap when state parks close, health coverage is hard to get, schools suffer from diminished funding, and welfare programs are reduced. In addition to keeping many people productive rather than placing a further burden on public assistance programs, civilian service can also provide relief and assistance after natural disasters. From our membership, the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), Washington Conservation Corps, American Youthworks (Austin, Texas), and Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa all sent volunteer crews to Joplin, Missouri and other recently stricken areas. Many civilian service organizations will also or already are assisting with recovery following hurricane Irene. Without their help, recovering from these tragedies would be much harder for communities who require assistance to rebuild.

We need help to save civilian service from potentially disastrous federal funding cuts! To learn more about how you can help add your voice to the growing movement, please visit