Reaffirming his passion for and commitment to national service, President Barack Obama recently called on Congress to send to him the bipartisan Serve America Act. The comprehensive and far-reaching legislation sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) would increase the number of citizens participating in national service to 250,000 (175,000 more than can be currently funded), ask that these individuals commit at least a year to their respective service endeavors, and use their service to confront specific national challenges in education, health care, energy, the environment, disaster response, and expanding opportunities for disadvantaged individuals.
Building on the success of AmeriCorps the network of national service programs launched under President Clinton the act would utilize fellowships, tax incentives, and other financial inducements to create a series of new "corps" of people of all ages and backgrounds, from youth to working adults and retirees. The legislation, which has been passed by the House of Representatives and awaits a vote in the Senate, also would support innovation in the nonprofit sector while expanding international service and improving America's image in the world.
Just as President Obama's massive fiscal stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, focuses heavily on rebuilding the country's physical infrastructure, the Serve America Act is the critically necessary stimulus package for rebuilding our nation's social infrastructure.
Indeed, our schools are plagued with such problems as high drop-out rates and outmoded resources. In far too many of our neediest communities, access to health care is limited, if not totally non-existent. We are burdened by our dependence on oil. And there are numerous threats to our environment.
National service is one of the most effective vehicles for tackling these vexing issues. Now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rise above our individual personal situations and collectively work on something larger than ourselves, to remake our democracy, reclaim and rebuild our country and communities, and regain the respect of our neighbors around the world through sacrifice and service.
If there were no other reason for public service to be high in our national agenda, consider this: Volunteerism, just one aspect of such service, contributes billions to the economy by reducing the burden on federal, state, and local spending, as well as private capital. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service's Volunteering in America 2008 study, nearly 61 million Americans volunteered in their communities in 2007, giving 8.1 billion hours of service worth approximately $158 billion to America's communities.
Service also has a profoundly positive impact on civic engagement, educational achievement, and employment. A seminal report on VISTA, which was established in 1964 and continues today as part of AmeriCorps, found that members reported higher levels of voting than the general population. Of particular note, African American and Hispanic VISTA members were more likely to have voted in presidential, state, and local elections than those in the same racial and ethnic groups. Overall, VISTA members also were more likely to pursue and complete their college degrees, hold full-time jobs, and maintain a higher income profile than the study's comparison group.
The impact on those who give of their time, energies, and talents is equally impressive. Beyond the common wisdom that those who give also receive, researchers have found that there is a definitive relationship between volunteering and health; volunteers have lower rates of mortality and depression and greater functional ability and positive feelings the "helper's high" as this has been called.
The need for service is obvious, but so is the drive to serve, as evidenced by the hope expressed by young people, senior citizens, and families who were energized by the Presidential election. Now our federal, state and local governments, working in tandem with private entities, must push this will into action. Immediate passage of the Serve America Act is the first step, and a giant one at that.
At the same time, there are already meaningful and substantial efforts on other governmental levels, as well as grassroots initiatives to create a public service army far surpassing what already exists. In New York City, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for a public service blueprint to expand the number of New Yorkers engaged in service. To do so, he is marshaling the collective experience and expertise of the nonprofit, philanthropic, and private sectors to maximize New York's greatest asset "The love that all of us have for this city, and our willingness to put it to work" now, when the city needs its citizenry most.
On the grassroots level, ServiceNation, a campaign and coalition umbrella of more than a hundred and fifty service organizations and programs, is aimed at inspiring voluntary community and national service opportunities, solving problems with proven service strategies, and elevating service as a core ideal of civic engagement. The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund is proud to be a lead supporter of the ServiceNation goal, which is ushering in a new era of service and civic engagement, so that by the year 2020, more than 100 million Americans will volunteer time in schools, workplaces, and community and faith-based organizations.
Throughout his campaign and again with his pledge to sign the Serve America Act as soon as it reaches his desk, President Obama issued a clarion call to service, urging every American to stand up and make an ongoing commitment to the betterment of our communities and our nation. Ultimately, however, it will be up to individuals to look at themselves and the role they wish to play in their country's recovery, and make sure this call does not fall on deaf ears.
Laurie M. Tisch is founder and president of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, which works to increase access and opportunity for all New Yorkers by supporting initiatives and programs that illuminate minds, spark imagination, and build community.