Spotlight Exclusives

A New Spirit of Service, by David Smith, Executive Director of the National Conference on Citizenship

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As the country faces a worsening economic crisis, numerous commentators have likened the situation facing President-elect Barack Obama to that which faced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. While much of the comparison focuses on how Obama can craft a “new” New Deal to save the flagging economy and tackle big challenges in energy and health care, we should not forget how the original New Deal embraced national service as a way to provide economic prosperity to millions facing deprivation and poverty.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which eventually hired 3 million of those whom the Great Depression had left unemployed to work on public lands projects. To commemorate this achievement, I want to call on President-elect Obama to implement a new path to prosperity: tuition money for college or advanced training in exchange for a full year of national or community service.

We tend to think of civic engagement and poverty as separate problems that require separate solutions. Attempting to renew the commitment to citizenship, particularly among our nation۪s youth, can appear as icing on the cake of prosperity for all. While it۪s true that we need to respond to those experiencing the most extreme deprivation, we should not ignore the interrelatedness of the two concerns. A more civically minded populace is essential to promoting opportunity, especially for many Americans who have been shut out of our nation۪s promise of well-being and upward mobility.

In July of this year, the National Conference on Citizenship commissioned a national survey of 1,005 telephone respondents and 1,000 participants in an online panel on civic participation and interest. Our findings show that the 2008 election spurred a level of interest in government unseen for decades. November 4 already saw record voter turnout, but our poll shows that deeper civic engagement is possible.

We found that right now people are most interested in “formal politics” (things like voting or contributing to campaigns), but also that they are ready for new policies that promote greater community participation and a stronger emphasis on citizenship. 80 percent want to see a national deliberation on a major issue that would require Congress to respond to citizens, 76 percent want community service included in school curricula, and 67 percent would like schools to test students in civics.

But what was the most popular policy to bolster civic involvement? 87 percent favored a policy to give all young people the chance to earn tuition money for college or advanced training by completing a year of national or community service.

Policies like this may be necessary to sustain the energy and zeal for public affairs we witnessed in the run-up to the election. While a record number voted, most of those we polled do not expect to maintain contact with public officials or even continue talking politics with friends.

New policies that codify a commitment to civic engagement can catalyze newfound energy during the election into a permanent public spirit.

Yet rewarding service with tuition would do much more than improve our civic health. It would also open up the pathways to prosperity for our nation۪s youth. We know that a good education is a crucial element of success, but we also know that too many Americans are denied the opportunity to pursue postsecondary degrees and training.

For many of the low-income students in our country, a national service program that pays tuition would provide the means to pursue an educationthe bedrock of economic opportunity and mobility. Additionally, the largest civic gap that we have observed is between those with and without college experience; offering an opportunity for educational advancement also yields civic connections for long-lasting engagement. There can be no doubt that we should come to the aid of those experiencing extreme poverty and deprivation, but we must also address the chronic lack of opportunity that allows poverty to take root and fester.

In his acceptance speech on the night of November 4, President-elect Obama called on all Americans to “summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.” To help us answer that call, the new administration should provide tuition for postsecondary education to all those who would contribute a year of service to their communities or to our country. Together, a new commitment to citizenship along with the promise of an education, and the opportunities it provides, can help restore the American dream of prosperity for all.

David Smith is Executive Director of the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC). Founded in 1946 and chartered by Congress in 1953, NCoC defines modern citizenship through tracking, measuring and promoting civic engagement in partnership with leading organizations on a bipartisan, collaborative basis.

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