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A stimulus plan to remake America: Invest in national service

President Barack Obama has called us to "remake America" and proclaimed "a new era of responsibility." By increasing national service as a part of the federal stimulus plan he can improve our communities and create jobs.

Investing just a small amount of money into national service would create a huge number of jobs, provide participants with the benefits of service, including increased educational opportunities, while making substantial improvements in our communities. 

During a recession, people need more help than ever. Nonprofits are ready to meet those needs, but need extra support. Increasing the number of national service jobs will give them the extra hands they need to do it.

A solid return on investment
Investing in national service jobs provides a good return on each dollar spent.  For just 1 percent of the stimulus plan, Obama could create 8 percent of the 3 million jobs he promised. This is possible because national service jobs don't cost much. While the cost is low, $11,000 to 20,000 plus a $4,725 educational award, these are jobs that make a difference.  That's why during the campaign, both Sen. John McCain and Obama agreed to create 250,000 more national service jobs, like those available through AmeriCorps, our domestic Peace Corps.

People who choose national service benefit too. During the one-year program they will learn new skills, acquire valuable knowledge about their community, and get to explore what they feel passionate about. Many AmeriCorps members go on to become employees of their sponsoring organization or some other agency they learned about during their year of service. And that one year of service often leads to a lifetime as an active and engaged citizen.

The educational award AmeriCorps members receive can be used to pay back a college loan or pursue further studies, which is a great investment in the workforce we will need for the future.

Increasing AmeriCorps has a multiplying effect. The current 75,000 AmeriCorps members generate over $1.7 million volunteers.

A Minnesota example
A great example of how that's done can be seen here at Minnesota Campus Compact. Our organization helps create partnerships among its 50 member colleges, their students and communities. We currently have an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who is working to increase the number of Citizen Scholar Fellows. These are first-generation and/or low-income students, who perform 300 hours of service in the community and earn a $1,000 education award. This one national service worker has the potential to generate thousands of volunteer hours that will benefit communities (around the state/country/colleges throughout the Midwest). He's also creating information so other schools can duplicate projects.

If AmeriCorps were expanded, we could place a member at each of our 50-plus campuses to increase campus community partnerships. The stories told at recent forums held throughout the state are examples of the great work already being done and indicate what kind of impact more partnerships would generate. 

Building homes, raising research funds …
In St. Cloud, Technical College students built five homes in five years on an abandoned warehouse site in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

Gustavus Adolphus students have raised funds for fibromyalgia research, disaster outreach, and a public-works project. 

Rainy River Community College students repair computers for neighborhood residents, and provide public clinics on accounting services, auto mechanics and healthcare.

Engaged universities are vital to the economic health of our communities. A stimulus package that would direct the smallest percentage to increase national service would have tremendous benefits to higher education, and most importantly to our communities. 

Jim Scheibel is the interim director of Minnesota Campus Compact and teaches in the School of Business at Hamline University. He was the mayor of St. Paul from 1990 to 1994, and directed AmeriCorps VISTA as well as the Senior Corps during the Clinton administration.

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Comments (1)

As a former VISTA and a former Americorps VISTA Leader, I can attest to the value of national service programs for the people who serve in them. As a recent college graduate, VISTA gave me an opportunity to serve my country, get on-the-job experience, and helped me pay back a lot of my college loans. I didn't make very much money as a VISTA, but that wasn't the point. ...
I agree with Jim Scheibel that investing more in national service would be an excellent way to improve our communities and create jobs at a low cost. The question is: What can we do to help make that happen? ...
Thank you for this article!