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It’s midsummer in Washington. Sweat gathers under suit jackets. Electric scooters clog the sidewalks. And presidential campaigns get serious about firming up policy positions before the primary season gets into full swing. As is our wont, we offer a few ideas in this issue: Daniel Block sketches a blueprint for a sweeping, progressive trade pact with Europe; Grace Gedye explores the latent political potential of tackling the long-term elder care crisis; and Kevin Carey lays out an innovative vision for establishing a national consortium of zero-tuition colleges. 

Another policy idea bouncing quietly around this cycle is an evergreen: expanding national service. Several presidential hopefuls, most notably Pete Buttigieg, have publicly discussed it. As well they should. Voters don’t just want stuff; they want opportunities to contribute to society, and not necessarily through the military. This insight guided John F. Kennedy when he established the Peace Corps; Bill Clinton when he created its domestic counterpart, AmeriCorps; and Barack Obama when he signed legislation designed to more than triple the number of AmeriCorps slots. (Unfortunately, the law required Congress to approve annual spending increases, which went pretty much how you’d imagine. Today, the program still only deploys about 75,000 members per year.) 

Today, in an era of vicious partisanship, the need to rebuild a real sense of national identity is especially urgent. Yet, oddly, politicians may not be thinking opportunistically enough about national service. It has become a far better idea than most people in politics seem to realize, because, done properly, it represents an elegant way to execute two extremely buzzy but decidedly half-baked policy goals in liberal circles: free college and a federal jobs guarantee. 

Ever since Bernie Sanders ran it up the flagpole in 2015, the notion that the federal government should eliminate tuition at all public universities has been both left-wing orthodoxy and a policy headache. As Kevin Carey explains, the Sanders approach perversely rewards the states that now provide the least support for higher education while punishing the ones that provide the most. It isn’t even all that popular beyond the Democratic base. A recent Quinnipiac poll found 52 percent of registered voters opposed, the latest of several similar results. 

But if we turn “free college” into “free college if you serve,” then something easily demonized as an expensive handout transforms into an earned benefit. A few Democratic candidates have picked up on this. (Unfortunately, as of this writing, their polling averages all begin with a decimal point.) Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, a military veteran, has the best proposal: granting generous tuition assistance, modeled after the GI Bill, for every year of national service. AmeriCorps members today get an education benefit capped at the maximum federal Pell Grant, currently $6,095. Moulton’s plan, on the other hand, would give up to 100 percent of in-state tuition (or $24,000 for job training). 

That’s the right idea. But even better would be to tie national service to one more objective: a massive federal jobs program. 

Like free college before it, the idea of a universal job guarantee got its biggest boost when Sanders endorsed it last year. The appeal is intuitive. Even with today’s low unemployment rate, millions of people can’t find work. Of particular concern are “displaced workers”: adults who are out of work because their employer or position ceased to exist. From 2015 to 2017, according to the Department of Labor, three million people were displaced from jobs they’d held for at least three years; by January 2018, one million were still unemployed. All those numbers will, of course, explode in the next recession. That makes a job guarantee automatically countercyclical. When the economy goes sour, spending goes up, helping to stanch the worst effects of a downturn.

But the idea wilts under scrutiny. The problem is right there in the name: How can you guarantee everybody a job? Not everyone who wants work is qualified to do something that needs doing. Even if they were, you’d have to convince Americans that the federal government is up for directly creating, staffing, and managing millions of new positions. And you’d have to figure out how long the guarantee lasts—is it life tenure for people who can’t find a better job elsewhere?

Dramatically expanding national service would be free of these issues. First, it’s time limited, with an education benefit at the end, like a bridge back into the broader economy. Second, it isn’t a super-centralized government bureaucracy. AmeriCorps, the marquee domestic service program, is essentially a network of nonprofits around the country that receive federal funding but handle hiring, training, and management themselves. Finally, it doesn’t aspire to universality. AmeriCorps is competitive; not everyone who applies gets in. Even if we expanded it by a factor of twenty, we could keep an element of selectivity. 

But we can’t just expand the existing system. AmeriCorps has been an overall success, with studies finding that its programs, which range from tutoring to disaster relief to legal assistance, more than pay for themselves in economic terms. The problem is that the setup—a grant program for nonprofits—hides its national character. 

“Many AmeriCorps members don’t really know that they’re AmeriCorps members,” said John Gomperts, who ran the program during the Obama administration. “You’re going to associate who you’re working for with where your paycheck is coming from.” That’s a serious shortcoming. The whole point of national service is that it’s, well, national. And for any government program to be politically durable—and worth fighting for in the first place—it really helps for people to know who’s behind it. 

An expanded national service program should therefore create a more direct relationship between citizen and government. Let people apply to the federal government directly. If accepted, they’d get a voucher that they could use to apply to any approved direct-service nonprofit organization, with the promise that the federal government would pay the bulk of their salary. That organization would choose whether to hire the person or not, but paychecks would be signed by the U.S. government. 

What I’m describing is basically a federally funded marketplace for national service. That might sound strange. But Shirley Sagawa, a leading expert on service programs, pointed out that it’s a setup that already exists in higher education. “It’s like federal financial aid,” she said. “The student, not the college, applies for aid.” Then the student decides which college to go to—provided the college accepts them. 

Just like colleges, the nonprofit employers would need to be accredited. Some authority would have to make sure that they’re real organizations, sincerely aimed at solving real problems, perhaps within certain broad categories like education and public health. But the government wouldn’t be in the business of deciding which organizations get money. Just let the market forces of job openings and worker preferences take control. 

For the program to be successful, organizations would have to actually want to hire the people getting the vouchers. That means that, like AmeriCorps today, it wouldn’t be open to everyone; vouchers should be awarded on a somewhat competitive basis, with a strong preference for work experience. Rather than mainly targeting eighteen-year-olds, this would likely end up benefiting older displaced workers the most. These are people who have proven they can hold down a job, and who could use two years of employment at a nonprofit, plus the two years of free college, to transition to a new career. 

A built-in countercyclical funding scheme would be crucial. Not only do the ranks of the unemployed swell during a recession; so, too, does the demand for the kind of social services that many nonprofit organizations provide. Legislation establishing a new national service program should therefore automatically tie funding to the unemployment rate, so that as unemployment rises, so do the available positions. (In a white paper, Sagawa suggests funding 25,000 new positions for every 0.1 percentage point by which the long-term unemployment rate goes above 1 percent. That would have meant 475,000 jobs at the peak of the Great Recession.)

It’s impossible to know in advance exactly how a program like this would play out. But when it comes to addressing two of the perennially dominant political issues in America—employment and education—national service is a powerful tool lying in plain sight. A political leader with vision just might pick it up.

Gilad Edelman

Follow Gilad on Twitter @GiladEdelman . Gilad Edelman, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a politics writer for WIRED.