When my son asked me how young people could avoid being dejected, I told him about the recent history of national service. If you look at the birth years of the extraordinary community service programs that deploy tens of thousands of young people around the country you’ll notice something interesting:

Teach for America – founded in 1989

City Year – 1988

YouthBuild Network – 1988

Equal Justice Works – 1986

Campus Compact – 1985

These transformative programs were all created during the Reagan Administration. Most of the social entrepreneurs who launched these and other programs became convinced that the federal government wasn’t going to do much to solve the nation’s problems so they took matters into their own hands.

These folks are not libertarian. This is not a case for replacing government with private action. Indeed, most of these programs have been able to dramatically expand their impact by becoming a part of AmeriCorps when it was created under Clinton. But it is proof that periods of government retrenchment or incompetence can spawn tremendous citizen action, creativity, and productivity.

Steven Waldman

Follow Steven on Twitter @stevenwaldman. Steven Waldman is the president and co-founder of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. As senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was the prime author of the landmark report Information Needs of Communities.