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National Service in Times of Crisis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Zach Curinga
October 1, 2022

“If you build it, they will come.” – Field of Dreams (1989)

An expanded national service presents an answer to the understaffed capacity issue in government in the face of multiple protracted crises facing the country. Climate change threatens long-term stability in the form of catastrophic environmental events; meanwhile, increased violence in the form of mass shootings sows tragedy and discord in the general public. There is an increasing prescience, and it becomes more difficult to find a common ground and to climb the social ladder. America can heal through innovation and revitalization. After all, it has done so before.

Mass national service was once the solution to a broken country. The Conservation Community Corps (CCC), for example, started in WWII as a response to mass youth unemployment following the Great Depression. The main pillars of the CCC consisted of work and education meant to enfranchise youth economically, instill a civic responsibility and imbue skills that would increase individual employment prospects in the future. This created what political theorists such as Robert Putnam have referred to as the “civic generation,” the likes of which have not been seen since that era. This is why an expanded national service would help improve the government in areas that have a dearth of labor by providing needed hands-on civic opportunities.

Social Cohesion

The American Dream diverts from modern reality of stark polarization and economic segregation as opportunity decreases. This has unfortunately coincided with decreased faith in the country’s institutions. In the poignantly titled op-ed, “The data are clear: The boys are not all right,” Andrew Yang, former presidential candidate, highlights that as the nature of the economy has transformed, high school graduation, college enrollment and median wages have all decreased among men. This fundamental shift in the economy had led to a precipitous rise in “deaths of despair,” Yang writes. It is possible that this has also correlated with the growing regularity of mass shooters between the ages of 18 and 21. This age range is crucial, because it is a formative one and shapes the trajectory for the future.

An expanded national service program could help unemployed youth and offer job training similar to the CCC. The CCC and its modern counterpart AmeriCorps VISTA have been shown to bolster human and social capital, serving to increase public service motivation and generating positive employment outcomes compared with individuals who did not serve in these programs. Culture underscores that one’s employment is tied to a specific sense of identity. The federal government should be working to expand national service programs that can enhance opportunity and foster positive identity formation among its participants, as it can impact culture and the collective well-being.

Environmental Management as a Case Study

An expanded national service could help improve forest management and improve responses to wildfires. This would also aid in community-specific green infrastructure projects, increase social capital and cohesion among participants by investing in their volunteerism and occupational education, elevate public service motivation and increase future job opportunities. A national service with enhanced capacity could be used to make all parks and public infrastructure accessible for all Americans, regardless of disability status.

Supposedly “poor” forest management gained attention during the Trump administration, as multiple governors traded misleading barbs about whose state was superior in forest fire prevention. Sadly, this misses the point. Wildfires generally are getting larger, more frequent and cost more in damages. Although climate change is a significant culprit related to wildfires, there are other factors in the short term that are relatively easier to manage: a national service with enhanced capacity and educational aspects could be used for incorporating better forest surveillance techniques, carrying out wiser prescribed burns, selectively removing trees of varying sizes, mulching and increasing the overall capacity to fight forest fires.

The pandemic influenced the highest rate of people in the United States participating in outdoor activities. Yet, many parks still are not fully accessible to those with a disability. This lack of accessibility is due to a lack of equipment, resources and accommodating infrastructure. The issue of park accessibility is only one example of many that do not meet the standards mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. By growing adaptive capacity, any member of the public can indulge in the natural beauty of America.


Whether there is a political will to increase and expand national service is a different question. Many observers have balked at any idea of increasing funding to volunteers en masse. Volunteering takes time, skill, empathy and (paradoxically) money that not everyone who wants to volunteer can give. Yet, the reward will affect the forthcoming generation as it did nearly a century ago. “Opportunities for employment in work for which individually you are best suited are increasing daily,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of the young men in the CCC in July 1933, “and you should emerge from this experience splendidly equipped for the competitive fields of endeavor which always mark the industrial life of America.”

Author: Zachary Curinga is currently a second-year graduate fellow in the Rutgers-Newark, School of Public Affairs and Administration, PhD program (SPAA). His research interests include nonprofit management, social capital, public health nutrition, and disability equity. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]

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