Let's Give Oregonians the Chance to Serve
The benefits of a state service program are clear - better care for the elderly & young children, reduced spread of disease, increased carbon sequestration, and reduced fire risk, to name a few.
Despite all the divisions in our society, most of us share a hunger to serve our communities. What we lack are sufficient options for young people to channel that desire into action. I see a declining sense of belonging and shared purpose as a result. Restoring opportunities to serve would help us address areas of critical need and rebuild the sense of common purpose that we lack.
Public Service Creates a Shared Sense of Belonging. The “Greatest Generation” showed how experiences in shared service created a sense of common purpose. Their collective action for our common good took many forms: the Civilian Conservation Corps, the military, the defense industry, and even alternative service as conscientious objectors. They worked together for our country.
Not all those experiences were good ones, in the moment. But even some of the bad ones had positive long-term outcomes. For instance, inequitable treatment of Black GIs helped forge the core of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, among both Black and white veterans. Although few of us bemoan the end of the draft, its termination marked the end of the kind of widespread compulsory service that brought a sense of common purpose to every corner of the U.S. and led to insights about how we could and should do better as a country.
A Hunger to Serve. Today’s opportunities for collective service are not as widespread, despite a hunger to serve. AmeriCorps has never reached the original goal of 250,000 participants. Of more than 500,000 who apply annually, only about 100,000 get assignments. The Peace Corps has about 7,400 people serving at any given time, having rejected about 75% of applicants. The military services employ about 2.2 million people in active and reserve components, but turn away about 71% of applicants for unsuitability or ineligibility.
The appeal of public service is amply demonstrated by the millions who apply to serve, but too many of them leave with their resolve to serve frustrated and without the bridges to further employment and education that those public service programs provide. As a result, we continue to see record low labor force participation rates.
Is There a Need? The counterargument for establishing public service programs has traditionally been that the free market does a more efficient job of allocating resources. However, everywhere we look, we see failures of the free market in critical roles. Our National Guard is currently staffing hospitals, mostly filling positions left empty due to labor shortage. We scrambled to organize college students to work as contact tracers at the height of the pandemic. We couldn’t get enough firefighters deployed last summer to contain some of the largest fires in state history.
A service program could help more reliably fill these crucial needs. Fire risks continue to grow as we fail to address fuel loads and invasive plants. And, to fight climate change, we’ll need to train and deploy workers to improve carbon sequestration in our working lands. Empowering young people to act on their desire to serve could provide critical workforce to bridge these market failures.
Building a Program. An ideal public service program at the state level would be both flexible and inclusive. All participants would receive some form of common introductory training in exchange for a modest commitment. For example, for committing to serve at least six months, they would be taught the general skills needed by a community responder during an emergency, and then have short-term, job-specific training such as for a certified nursing assistant or wildland firefighter. The benefits package for short term service would likely be similarly modest – a basic wage, health insurance, and an educational stipend upon completion.
Longer commitments or renewals could earn increased training and greater benefits. While the program would not be a career-long enterprise, continuity has a value that should be rewarded. At the completion of the program, as with military service, the state should provide transition assistance to help participants find a job or educational program to continue their careers. In some states, employers are rewarded for hiring graduates of service programs like AmeriCorps; Oregon can and should do the same. The community benefits are priceless: essential community needs addressed, stronger community bonds forged, and a more broadly experienced workforce available for employment.
Funding. The failure of the market to provide for the jobs that public service volunteers would fill does not mean that there is no cost-effective way to operate a service program. Public-private partnerships can support such programs. For instance, the relative expense of employer-provided health insurance is a major barrier for non-profit congregate care facilities to attract labor. However, the state has the ability extend the Oregon Health Plan – an effective and cost-efficient insurance – to participants in such a program, reducing the cost to the care facility.
In contrast, the lack of firefighters did not reflect a lack of funding to pay them, but rather the lack of a workforce ready to perform those duties, and this need could be met by public service training. As we discuss restructuring our economy to combat climate change, carbon credits could be used to fund volunteer teams engaged in restoration and tree-planting. The Swiss fund their national service program by imposing a higher income tax rate on people who decline to serve. This is not to say that a service program will be free, merely that the cost may be modest when private resources and public incentives are considered.
Benefits. The tangible benefits of a state service program are clear – better care for the elderly and young children, reduced spread of disease, increased carbon sequestration, reduced fire risk, and cleaner water, just to name a few. For the participants, the program provides not just the opportunity for meaningful and rewarding work, but also the potential to further their career ambitions and education. Less tangibly, but equally important, public service can restore a sense of community by showing the value in collective work across social boundaries toward a common goal. That builds a sense of mutual respect and reduces the present divides, building a society that can find the solutions that our state and country need, today and tomorrow.
Marty Wilde is a State Representative serving HD 11.
"AmeriCorps Strong!" by Huron Pines is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0