Spotlight Exclusives

Use Service to Address Poverty, by Alan Khazei, Founder and CEO of Be the Change, Inc. and Brittny Saunders, Policy Counsel, Be the Change, Inc.

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We believe that voluntary service by regular Americans can and should be part of a renewed effort to address poverty, a problem that demands immediate action, not only because of its tremendous moral dimensions, but also because of its practical implications. The notion of “service,” however, is at once utterly uncontroversial and politically charged. Service to others is widely considered an honorable pursuit, but the term still raises a series of complex questions. What does it mean to “serve” an individual or a community? Is service merely a way of meeting immediate needs, or can it be a strategy for changing lives and improving communities? We argue that the latter is truethat the range of activities that fall under the umbrella of “service” can be truly transformative if proven strategies are deployed in response to serious challenges and the opportunity to serve is extended not only to those who typically have the means to do so, but also to those who often do not. We are particularly excited about the prospect of federal legislation that will pioneer innovative approaches to expanding opportunity and enable low-income individuals to play a role in strengthening the communities in which they live.

Serve America Act

Perhaps the single most exciting aspect of the 2008 presidential race was the extent to which Americans from a wide range of backgrounds engaged in the political process. In its wake, there is a strong sense that while the nation faces a set of formidable challenges chief among them the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression a renewed sense of civic engagement may make us better equipped to handle these difficulties. In coming years, this energy and enthusiasm could prove a valuable resource in the fight to decrease poverty and broaden opportunity if more Americans are given a chance to contribute.

The Serve America Act was introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Orrin Hatch on September 12, 2008, with Senators Clinton, Cochran, Dodd, McCain and Obama among the original co-sponsors. The Act contains a number of proposals for giving Americans opportunities to serve at every stage of life. A number of these proposals have the potential to strengthen low-income communities and provide residents of such communities and organizations that work in economically distressed areas opportunities to implement solutions that are tailored to local needs.

Youth Engagement Zones

Nearly one-third of all public high school students and nearly one-half of all African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans fail to graduate from public high school with their class. A 2004 study by the Civil Rights Project shows that high school drop out rates also tend to be elevated in high-poverty communities. Dropouts earn $9,200 less per year than graduates and more than $1 million less over the course of a lifetime than college graduates, according to data compiled by the Silent Epidemic, a foundation-sponsored initiative to reduce dropout rates. Alarmingly, at the same time, the Civil Rights Project study reports that the pool of jobs offering a livable wage for individuals without a high school diploma is shrinking. As a result of these trends and as John Bridgeland, President and CEO of Civic Enterprises and one of this site۪s creators noted in a recent piece for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity high school dropouts are more than twice as likely as graduates to find themselves in poverty in a single year.

Recognizing that failure to complete high school jeopardizes the economic security of young people in low-income areas across the country and that high-quality service learning programs can keep students engaged and increase the likelihood of graduation, the Serve America Act proposes the creation of Youth Engagement Zones. Youth Engagement Zone programs will provide coordinated school and community-based service-learning opportunities for youth who have dropped out of secondary school and students who are at risk of doing the same. Young people who are enrolled in such programs will tackle projects that focus on increasing student engagement, improving area natural resources, enhancing energy efficiency in neighborhood buildings, raising levels of civic engagement and participation, and addressing other challenges particular to the communities in question. Community-based organizations that have proven successful at engaging low-income students in service-learning activities will operate these programs in partnership with local educational agencies and state actors or other community-based groups.

ServeAmerica Corps

The Youth Engagement Zones represent only one way in which the Serve America Act aims to use service as a means of strengthening low-income communities. Among the bill۪s most exciting proposals is the creation of four new “problem-solving” corps. The Act will provide opportunities for 175,000 additional Americans to participate in a year of full- or part-time service in addition to the 75,000 existing positions. Each of the four ServeAmerica Corps the Clean Energy Service Corps, the Education Corps, the Healthy Futures Corps, and the Opportunity Corps is predicated on the belief that national service programs can help to improve outcomes for low-income Americans with respect to a range of important indicators.

Aspects of each of the ServeAmerica Corps programs recognize and respond to needs in America۪s most economically distressed communities. Individuals who join the Healthy Futures Corps, for example, will increase access to health care among economically disadvantaged individuals, members of medically underserved populations, and the uninsuredparticularly low-income children. Members of this health-focused corps will also work to reduce persistent health disparities, such as those that exist between low-income Americans and their middle- and upper-income counterparts. Members of the Clean Energy Service Corps will work to increase the number of housing units for low-income households that are retrofitted to enhance energy efficiency, thereby lowering fuel costs and reducing energy consumption. Participants in the Education Corps will focus their efforts on raising levels of student engagement, academic achievement, high school graduation rates, college-going rates, and college persistence ratesall of which tend to be low among economically disadvantaged populations. A 2002 study, for example, found that among low-income students who enroll in college, a mere 22 percent compared to 78 percent of their high-income counterparts ultimately receive a bachelor۪s degree.

The final ServeAmerica Corps program, the Opportunity Corps, was designed to use service to specifically target problems faced by low-income individuals and their communities. Participants will work to increase the number of housing units built or improved for economically disadvantaged individuals and families. Opportunity Corps members will also expand access to job training and information about job placement services, crucial work in the current economic climate. In addition, Corps members will help to raise levels of financial literacy among low-income Americans.

Importantly, the Act recognizes that national service programs can play a direct role in expanding opportunity by engaging economically disadvantaged individuals as participants. This is particularly crucial at this moment in time. The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University has found that teen employment-to-population ratios, declining since 2006, hit a 60-year low of 33.5 percent during the first quarter of 2008. This figure is even more alarming in light of the fact that low-income youth tend to be employed at even lower rates than their peers. Organizations that connect low-income youth to employment opportunities have long seen demand that outpaces supply. Opportunity Corps programs could help to meet this demand and provide crucial inroads for low-income youth, enabling them to acquire job skills and develop relationships that will promote career development.

A recent study by the Corporation for Community and National Service indicates that participants in existing national service programs reap these benefits and more. At the conclusion of their service, 90 percent of AmeriCorps members reported that they had gained new skills through the experience, and 91 percent of alumni reported that they had drawn upon these skills in educational or work settings. Alumni were also likely to continue to volunteer in their communities after completing their service and to choose careers in teaching, public safety, social work, and military service. They were also likely to work with high-poverty or elderly populations in subsequent years. This suggests that an investment in service promises not only immediate benefits for the individuals who are involved in the short term, but also positive outcomes for the communities in which participants live in the long term.

The ServeAmerica Corps will be funded through a combination of formula grants to State Service Commissions as well as competitive grants for which both State Commissions and nonprofit organizations will be eligible. Notably, however, the Act creates space for the institutions that will administer these programs to shape them in response to specific local needs. In this way, the Serve America Act recognizes the knowledge and expertise that exist among government and community-based actors at the state and local levels and avoids “one-size-fits-all” solutions to complex problems.

Volunteer Generation Fund

The Act also recognizes that over the course of the nation۪s history, civic organizations, community-based groups, and faith-based institutions have enabled countless Americans to contribute to the betterment of their communities. If enacted, the Serve America Act would provide funds to help such organizations to recruit, manage, and support volunteers. The ultimate goal of this technical assistance would be to increase the number of volunteers available to improve economic opportunities for low-income Americans, education for economically disadvantaged public school students, access to health care, and disaster preparedness and response.


We do not claim that service-learning, national service, or traditional community volunteering programs are capable of ending poverty outright. Instead, we contend that carefully designed and targeted service programs can be a tool for meeting the needs of low-income Americans and low-income communities. This is particularly important at a time when states and localities have had to slash their budgets, leaving social service programs with fewer resources to meet steadily increasing needs. Service programs, such as those proposed in the Serve America Act, in addition to AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Learn & Serve America, and the countless other programs already in operation in communities across the country can help meet pressing needs by supplying much-needed human resources. And because they are fueled by the energy of the broader public, these programs provide unique opportunities for low-income individuals to help implement solutions to problems affecting their communities, even as they develop skills and relationships that will help them to secure subsequent employment. We are excited that President-elect Obama, who began calling upon Americans to serve while still a candidate, has already set forth a comprehensive plan for making voluntary citizen service a central part of American life. We are also pleased that there is strong bipartisan leadership ready to move this new agenda. We believe that service is an essential part of an overall strategy to address poverty and create a nation of true opportunity for all.

Alan Khazei is the founder and CEO of Be the Change, Inc., an organization dedicated to developing innovative approaches to public policy that are rooted in the experiences of successful social entrepreneurs. Be the Change, Inc. also aims to build a citizens۪ movement in support of new solutions to persistent problems. Brittny Saunders is Policy Counsel at Be the Change, Inc.

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