The Only Path to Real Unity

To bring Americans together, President Biden needs to combine his eloquent exhortations with concrete action—a massive expansion of civilian national service.

In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden declared that the moment “requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy — unity.” Elusive is right, even in the best of times. Most discussion about whether Biden can pull the nation together focuses on tactical questions like whether he can get this Republican Senator or that to co-sponsor a bill.

But to achieve unity, he needs policies that advance this purpose — and that points to one idea: national service. Biden must become the National Service President. Specifically, that means a massive expansion of AmeriCorps and other service programs that put Americans in full-time problem-solving public service jobs for a defined tour of duty.   

AmeriCorps has had a strange political history. Some Republicans in Congress (and more recently the Trump White House) have tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the domestic service program almost every year since its creation in 1994. Lately, the budget attacks have become ritualistic—like their hearts aren’t quite in killing the program now that it has one million alumni and strong support from Republican officeholders outside of Washington.

But, in truth, national service advocates never quite got what they wanted from Bill Clinton, who created AmeriCorps, and Barack Obama, who strongly supported it. They were big fans of AmeriCorps which enables about 75,000 Americans each year to work in community service organizations. Yet neither the Clinton nor the Obama administrations ever used national service as a major weapon in their policy arsenal, a cross-cutting strategy that can be used to solve a variety of problems. Quick: what was AmeriCorps’ role in providing more affordable care under Obamacare? You can’t say because no major Obama speech about the Affordable Care Act proposed or described a major role for AmeriCorps, even though strong local AmeriCorps programs promoted public health. He also didn’t deploy AmeriCorps to help employ young people amidst a massive crisis of youth unemployment.

This needs to change. National service needs to stop being a nice, minor-but-worthy program closeted away in the appendix of the budget. It must become central to how we solve problems — because it is the only approach that can, to use the flowery aspirational language of inaugurals, heal both bodies and souls. Strangely, Biden might be the one to do it. I say strangely because he did not campaign on expanding AmeriCorps. While he talks movingly about military service, including the sacrifices made by his late son, Beau, the 78-year-old hardly ever talks about civilian service. 

But the crises that Biden outlined practically demand a massive national service effort. First, as a practical matter, a dramatically expanded AmeriCorps would be invaluable to a nation recovering from COVID-19. Imagine a crew of AmeriCorps corps members managing hundreds of volunteers at sports stadiums that are mega-vaccination centers or staffing the mobile vans that will surely be needed to bring services to hesitant or low-income communities. (Many AmeriCorps members already help community-based public health programs). AmeriCorps could run an intensive summer program designed to get school kids back on track with their learning. (Many AmeriCorps programs already focus on helping young people improve reading and other skills).

AmeriCorps can also provide jobs and financial help to young adults who have been devastated by the economic crisis (the youth unemployment rate is 12.5 percent). Its members earn stipends and about $6,000 in scholarship aid for each year of service they do.

Most important, national service is one of the few strategies that could unify Americans (as opposed to warring tribes in Congress) and help achieve this especially elusive Biden goal: “Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another.”

Well-constructed, civilian national service programs can replicate what military service has often done: bringing people of different backgrounds together around an important mission. Those in civilian service programs are not having rap sessions; they’re putting on gloves, grabbing shovels, and working to help a town that’s been hit by flooding.

In truth, not all AmeriCorps programs bridge divides. Some do worthy work but draw relatively homogeneous batches of blue state idealists. Biden should make bridge-building an explicit goal – national service to help heal the nation, Trump and Biden voters working side by side. Both would benefit from becoming comrades in arms. Indeed, to really put a Biden twist on the strategy, he could emphasize service programs in which military veterans, soldiers, and civilians serve side by side

Beyond the compelling need, there are reasons to think the Biden administration could go big. Whether he intended to or not, Biden has staffed his administration with dozens of national service boosters.

Bruce Reed, the deputy chief of staff, has been a prominent national service advocate since the 1980s when he was one of the architects of Bill Clinton’s campaign proposal. 

Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, has supported mandatory national service. “The reason I think service is so important,” she said last year, “is not only is it creating economic opportunity in training and skills for those who may not otherwise have them, but most importantly, it’s teaching us to understand and to know each other as Americans across different geographic, racial, socioeconomic lines, as part of one nation and one community.”

Pete Buttigieg, the would-be secretary of transportation, proposed an ambitious national service plan during the campaign, increasing the number of AmeriCorps positions from 75,000 to 250,000.

Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence, served on the Congressionally-created National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, which declared, “With significant growth in the number and kinds of service opportunities, a service year will become a new rite of passage to adulthood.’’

Perhaps most important, Joe Biden’s closest friend in the U.S. Senate is Chris Coons of Delaware, the number one Congressional champion of national service. In fact, last year Coons proposed a new bill that would increase the size of AmeriCorps to 300,000 and has attracted significant Republican support in the chamber, including from Lindsey Graham, John Cornyn, Marco Rubio, Roger Wicker, and Susan Collins (Oh, and one of the nine primary Democratic co-sponsors was Kamala Harris).

But there is already one warning sign that the Biden administration might make the same mistake as Obama – viewing AmeriCorps as a lovely program but not a way to achieve significant policy priorities. Biden’s recently released COVID plan proposes $1.9 trillion worth of activity but does not mention AmeriCorps (which costs a mere $420 million).

That’s crazy. AmeriCorps should be an essential part of the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 recovery plan. And almost every department of the government should ask how national service might help achieve their goals. Javier Becerra, the prospective Secretary of Health and Human Services, should ask how we can support nurses or doctors who choose to work in nursing care in low-income communities. Secretary of State Antony Blinken should ask how can a revitalized Peace Corps help America repair its image by helping developing nations succeed. Denis McDonough, nominated to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, should consider how vets can be better served and, more importantly, continue their own service

There should be enough national service positions so that every American who wants to serve can. And the administration should then use these public servants to help solve America’s most urgent problems. No previous President has done that. In addition to dedicating substantially more money for AmeriCorps and other service programs, the administration should appoint a senior White House advisor on national service – to make sure national service is represented in all policy discussions — and someone of serious stature to run AmeriCorps.

The new administration will be tempted to view national service as a worthwhile but second-tier initiative that can be delayed. That’s backward. National service is one of the most effective ways to tackle these crises. Biden would help himself politically by delivering not only on his concrete promises — more shots, more jobs. But realistically, he is unlikely to get Republican and Democratic members of Congress to hold hands on very much. But through national service, he might make progress on the hardest problem of all: making Americans demonize each other less. “If we do this,” Biden said, “then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us, they gave their best, they did their duty, they healed a broken land.”

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Steven Waldman

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.