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Opinion | The Case for Mandatory National Service

The key for success would be a slow, but ultimately forceful normalization of joining up with Mega AmeriCorps after high school, which would have the added effect of lessening the pressure that many kids feel to compete and excel in their academic pursuits. Access to higher education plays far too large a role in nearly every facet of American life, from what salary you earn to what side of the political divide you fall. This would be a conscious effort to reduce the importance of a postsecondary education by creating a bridge between high school and a career that could allow you to circumvent the need to go to college at all. Much of the money that goes to Mega AmeriCorps would be spent on training and apprenticeship programs to get young people credentialed and prepared for a career.

Even middle-class kids who might ultimately find their way to a four-year college could be encouraged to join up with AmeriCorps with the proper incentives. For what feels like years, the White House has been debating student loan forgiveness. While I’m not entirely sure about tying existing loan forgiveness to Mega AmeriCorps, I do think the White House could partner with states and, much like the G.I. Bill, offer to supplement or fully cover the state or community college tuition of anyone who had completed two years of service. The service time would also count as class credits and could even help with admission into more exclusive state schools. This would also reduce tuition costs by cutting down on the time a Mega AmeriCorps graduate needed to be on campus.

Here’s a specific example of how it could work

I’ve written quite a bit about how one of the enduring and less-discussed problems with homelessness in California is that there simply are not enough workers to carry out the grand plans of politicians or even maintain the current raft of services. This is understandable even in times when civic agencies are fully staffed, for the very simply reason that working with the homeless isn’t easy.

Currently, much of the homelessness work in California gets contracted out to third-party nonprofits like Urban Alchemy, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated people find work. But the intensity of the homelessness crisis and the labor shortage have placed a great deal of strain on these organizations to keep up with demand.

An energized and well-funded Mega AmeriCorps could produce a new work force to engage with the homeless at every level: Outreach on the streets, support to get people into shelters or into permanent housing, and then follow-ups once people have stabilized. Because it’s a federal program, it would be easier for the public to monitor than third-party nonprofits. And while it might be true that many of the young people who go into these jobs will not work in homelessness services for their whole career, there will at least be enough bodies around to run everything from shelters to permanent supportive housing services to harm reduction centers to so-called “Safe Sleep” sites.

An admittedly too-broad and unpopular opinion

I, myself, am an AmeriCorps alumnus. I did an environmental restoration program in Seattle when I was 19 years old. I was not an ideal employee by any means, but I did plant some trees and learn quite a bit about forestry, climate change and park maintenance. I also learned that there is a value to service, which was an invaluable lesson during a dark time in my life when the thought of going to college and pursuing some sort of career seemed like an impossibility.

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