How Biden Can Restore the Economy and Much More: The Case for National Service

A large-scale national service initiative can put millions of Americans to work now and set in motion the process of repairing our country’s civic fabric.

For a brief moment, it was possible to hope that the soaring rhetoric of President Biden’s inaugural address would propel us toward an era of unity and cooperation. His comforting words lifted the spirit but the strong gravitational pull of reality brought us down to Earth in what felt like minutes.

Even though the pandemic’s end appears to be in sight there are dark days ahead while the vaccination effort scales up, and the economic pain will not be quickly eased by an injection. Our deep political and cultural divisions, obscured for a few hours by bunting, poetry and fireworks, are formidable. 

But there is an answer to these challenges within Biden’s reach: National service. 

Mass employment through service, like programs run by the Works Progress Administration, were important elements of recovery enacted by President Franklin D.Roosevelt. Beyond putting money in people’s pockets, they restored a sense of pride and purpose for millions put out of work. And they addressed critical needs.

National service could be scaled up quickly by expanding existing AmeriCorps programs in tandem with state, local and nongovernmental efforts. Struggling communities could receive a helping hand. Service corps could provide a lifeline for the elderly, immunocompromised and physically limited, who are cut off and isolated. Early childhood education and care services could be bolstered by qualified early childhood educators. Service corps members could tutor children whose education has suffered with online learning. In time, a national service corps could support major infrastructure projects, like digital connectivity on tribal lands, much like how the WPA created much of the aging public infrastructure on which we now rely. Public lands are in need of serious care that a modern Civilian Conservation Corps could provide.

The virus itself might not affect young people as badly as their older relatives, but youth are among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Young people make up one quarter of workers in the hardest hit industries overall with the pain compounded by the reality that these service-oriented jobs do not provide the safety net of sick leave or telework.

History shows that youth unemployment and dislocation is linked to unrest. Unemployment and poor educational options for young people in Weimar Germany, for example, created a fertile breeding ground for nationalist, anti-Semitic ideologues pitching a scapegoat. Conditions of economic stress make it easier to capture the energy of frustrated youth with divisive, inflammatory rhetoric. 

But polarization is clearly a defining feature of American politics, not a momentary phenomenon. The Capitol riot horrified many but the condemnation is clearly far from universal. Even Americans who find the attack on Congress objectionable do not necessarily disagree with those who violently rampaged through the House and Senate chambers. This insurrection—still referred to as a “protest” in many circles—underscores that while American people may share citizenship, they often share little else. 

A national service program offers a means by which people from different backgrounds, experiences and views can learn to function together. With Americans increasingly segregated—by where they live, where they get their information, what they believe—shared experience is sorely lacking. The Constitution creates a brilliant framework for governance but the gears of American democracy are greased by compromise, mutual understanding, and faith in our opponent’s decent intentions. 

Bringing people together through service is not a magic elixir through which adversaries become compatriots by cleaning parks together. But shared experience and interaction is helpful, as observed in universal military mobilizations of our past.

There is no panacea for all we face. A large-scale national service initiative can put millions of Americans to work now and set in motion the process of repairing our country’s civic fabric.

Let’s invest in future generations of engaged, educated young people—people who have first-hand experience working alongside those of different creeds—who will rebuild a shared sense of community characterized by mutual respect, and who will restore institutions of pluralistic democracy. 

Jonathan Koppell is the dean of the Watts College of Public Service & Community Solutions at Arizona State University and cofounder of the Next Generation Service Partnership, a joint initiative of the Volcker Alliance and ASU.