Our country faces urgent challenges, from 4.6 million young people disconnected from jobs and school, to an opioid epidemic that kills more than 130 Americans every day. Right here in Seattle we face an affordable-housing crisis, working families that can’t afford to feed their children and a high school dropout rate that remains stubbornly above one-in-five. Instead of fighting together to solve these challenges, we have become more and more divided as a country, and Americans increasingly doubt that we can ever come together again.
We believe there is a solution, one that can have a measurable positive impact on all these challenges while also bringing us together as a country: We should work to make national service an optional — but expected — choice and opportunity for all young Americans.
We’ve seen firsthand the power of national service to bring people of all different backgrounds together. And we know the impact national service can have on struggling communities. For example, right now in Seattle approximately 35 AmeriCorps members are serving with EarthCorps, restoring coastlines and forests. Around 30 AmeriCorps College Coaches are serving with College Access Now to support high school students all the way through graduating from college.
Washington hosts a significant number of those serving in our Armed Forces and their dependents. Approximately 79,000 individuals serve in both active duty and the reserves, in addition to another 90,000 dependents. The Greater Seattle area alone hosts five military installations. Organizations like Growing Veterans and The Mission Continues empower veterans to build community and continue their service locally in Washington state.
And that’s not to mention the hundreds more, serving with Teach for America, City Year and the United Way in Washington state. They do it for a modest living stipend, and with the promise of an award for higher education at the end of their service years. But national service has other benefits, too. A study recently released by Burning Glass Technologies and Service Year Alliance proved that service-year alumni have better career outcomes than their peers, including increases in education completion, skills attainment and income growth.
A universal expectation for national service is good for us as a country, too. After their service years, 29% of AmeriCorps alumni report greater comfort in working with individuals of different backgrounds. And it’s a smart investment. For every dollar we invest in national service, taxpayers save $4, according to a Service Year study.
But is the American public behind this idea? And do young people want to serve? The answer to both questions is yes. In a poll conducted by TargetPoint, across party lines, voters overwhelmingly agree that national service helps prepare young people for the workforce (80%), helps build stronger neighborhoods and communities (79%) and helps restore important values of patriotism and civic duty to young people (78%). Furthermore, Roll Global found that one in four millennials polled would “definitely participate” in national service.
Every year, only 66,000 Americans are able to do a civilian service year through AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and YouthBuild. This is just a small fraction of the number who would do so if they were offered the opportunity. We just have to ask — and give them the chance. That is why we both support Serve America Together (serveamericatogether.org), a new campaign to make national service part of growing up in America.
Voluntary universal national service could create a path to opportunity for every young American, help make college affordable, unleash a powerful force to solve our country’s biggest challenges and develop the next generation of leaders that our country needs. We want national service to become a key component of presidential candidates’ platforms. Here in Washington state we hope leaders across diverse sectors can come together to catalyze the expansion of service years. It is the way forward, for Seattle, and for America.