Last summer, I took my two boys camping in Shenandoah National Park about 75 miles north of Charlottesville, Virginia. Outside the visitor center, we came across a life-size statue of a muscular young man with an ax. My kids grabbed his arms, I took a picture, and we were off.
A few weeks after the trip, when the clashes in Charlottesville ignited a national debate over Confederate monuments, I decided to learn more about the statue we’d seen that day. There are more than 65 similar ones around the country. They’ve been erected over the last almost 25 years by the alumni organization for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the New Deal program that engaged young men in planting trees and clearing trails. Former CCC members, often in their eighties and nineties, have paid for most of the work.
In the Jim Crow era, Civil War veterans erected statues of Confederate generals to reflect and reinforce white supremacy. A century later, a different group of aging veterans was sometimes spending $22,000 a pop to recall experiences just as deep in their past. Yet their message was vastly different.
That message resonated with me based on experience. In my first job in Washington, I had worked on creating AmeriCorps, the youth service program established early in Bill Clinton’s Administration. Fifteen years later, as a middle-aged wonk at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during President Obama’s first term, national service was part of my portfolio. But, by that time, the program struck me as an indulgence, too small and costly to move any needle that mattered.
A few years later, the cost of this or that social program is the least of America’s problems. Meanwhile, with so many Americans feeling so disconnected from America’s promise, national service today seems critical to me as never before. It is a unique tool to restore a sense of agency, hope, and common purpose in youths who feel none of those things. But to make this happen, we’d first need to learn some lessons from the CCC that inspired its veterans to build those monuments three-quarters of a century later. And we’d need to take AmeriCorps in some new directions that recent leaders have resisted.
Franklin Roosevelt created the CCC in response not just to the mass unemployment of the Great Depression, but also to the sense of dissolution that was then also looming for young people. Following the economic collapse, hundreds of thousands of youths had left their homes to live on the road and along railroads. Labeled as hobos, tramps, or bums, they worked when they could, but most begged or even robbed when they had to. “They were hungry, and they were fierce,” John Steinbeck wrote of those people forced from their homes.
According to one of Roosevelt’s rivals for the presidential nomination, the men on the move were “picking up the vices and crimes of the underworld—gambling, stealing, drug addiction, prostitution, and sexual perversion.” Their politics became radical: “Every group of boy tramps contains a Communist; Bolshevism is spreading rapidly,” noted the leading study of the day, Thomas Minehan’s Boy and Girl Tramps of America. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, in a slightly more sympathetic tone, “I have moments of real terror when I think we might be losing this generation. We have got to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary.”
The CCC did exactly that. The pay was low—a dollar a day, which is below today’s minimum wage after adjusting for inflation. But pay was only part of the point. In the great American tradition, Roosevelt saw work as a “moral and spiritual value.”
Unlike other relief programs at the time, the CCC purposefully cultivated young men’s sense of themselves as effective citizens. The CCC’s leaders had studied the Boy Scouts, founded in 1910 to shape young men of character. CCC members were directed by military reserves. They woke to reveille and went to sleep to taps. They learned patriotic songs. In addition to work clothes, they received a dress uniform for special occasions. Long workdays were followed by evening classes, from literacy to carpentry. “We were taught the idea,” said one member, “that ‘hey, you can do things.’” Roosevelt told the youths they had earned “the admiration of the entire country.”
The economy today may be roaring, but many young people experience a world in which they can’t do things. It’s the distinctive experience of Americans buffeted by the modern economy, particularly those without college degrees. Most social indicators for Americans lacking college diplomas are down: employment, earnings, marriage rates, and community engagement.
This is also a regional story. As endless postelection news stories attest, in rural America deindustrialization has created an economic and spiritual vacuum, filled in many people’s lives by opiates.
But it’s not just rural areas. The effects of deindustrialization in the heartland echo the experience of inner cities that William Julius Wilson first chronicled over 25 years ago. If there is one big difference, it’s that—despite all the recent focus on the white working class—the problems for lower-income African Americans are still far worse, as more recent research of Raj Chetty and his colleagues has continued to underscore. As a term to describe young people who are neither in school nor working, “disconnected youth” has fallen out of favor, yet it remains an apt term for many American youths, of every race.
In other words, as in the 1930s, these young people would benefit enormously from the chance to earn, learn, and achieve public recognition through important work. While private sector jobs are of course invaluable, work for the public good can be particularly powerful in developing a sense of citizenship and self-efficacy. As noted in a recent review from the National Academy of Sciences, multiple studies tie civic service in youth to positive outcomes for employment, engagement, and health.
Since the early 1990s, hundreds of youth service programs have operated within AmeriCorps. Yet AmeriCorps has survived rather than thrived. The CCC employed more than 250,000 men at once; AmeriCorps has plateaued in size with about 80,000 members a year in a country 2.5 times as large. In addition, many AmeriCorps members serve only part-time, juicing numbers but not impacts.
After introducing the program in 1993, Clinton let his enthusiasm succumb to Republicans’ anti-spending fervor. George W. Bush supported AmeriCorps after 9/11, but never prioritized it. Neither did Obama. He signed legislation to grow the program to 250,000 members, but never pushed for money to pay for it.
One reason for AmeriCorps’ limited grip on Americans’ imagination: The program has departed from the CCC’s example in important ways. The CCC did one kind of work at enormous scale: This led to three billion trees planted and thousands of paths cleared. (In Shenandoah National Park, the CCC laid the groundwork for Skyline Drive.) AmeriCorps, meanwhile, does a little bit of everything: clearing paths, tutoring kids, building homes. Over the years, most programs have come to focus on education, but the activities are diffuse (teaching, tutoring, counseling, etc.), and even education experts rarely know their work. The CCC targeted unemployed youth. AmeriCorps operates up and down the opportunity spectrum, often engaging college graduates on their way to advanced degrees. With something for everyone, AmeriCorps has few vivid accomplishments and no powerful constituency. Advocates for education, housing, and the environment like AmeriCorps. Few are passionate about it.
While continuing to invest in programs that are working, AmeriCorps should move toward the more focused CCC model. A modernized conservation program would be compelling. The effort can include the national parks, which are one of our only institutions that Americans across the ideological spectrum still appreciate. The parks alone face a $12 billion backlog of maintenance that was deferred even in the Obama years. But climate change creates a host of new environmental needs that corps members can meet. They can help weatherize homes and add solar panels, cutting carbon use. They can also fight flooding by restoring wetlands, building levees, and stormproofing buildings. These types of work do not require higher education, but with proper training, they offer paths into careers in construction, where jobs are already growing and will grow more if we ever invest in infrastructure as we should. A 2012 Booz Allen study found that youth corps completed conservation work more cost effectively than traditional contractors or employees. (And, yes, all of this will need to be paid for, costs that tax increases at the top can and should cover.)
While focusing service programs’ work, we also need to return to the CCC’s broader civic purpose. As a kid working on the AmeriCorps implementation, I helped come up with the slogan: “Getting things done.” But as OMB’s career staff pointed out to me years later, if the only measure of a program is what it delivers, then service programs are an imperfect mechanism. With typical terms of a year, the programs come with extra recruiting costs. They provide educational awards that add administrative costs. And they engage in character-building activities that are beside the point if service delivery is the only measure of success.
The same things could have been said of the CCC. Why the dress uniform? Roosevelt understood the CCC as “a great national movement for the conservation of men.” Today, in our eagerness to get things done, we’ve lost sight of service’s civic side. The National Academy of Sciences dryly said as much: “[The] growing emphasis on member development represents a lost opportunity to incorporate into national service programs mechanisms that could improve health and well-being during the transition to adulthood, as well as the productivity and citizenship of future generations.”
This shortcoming in vision ties to a broader, more programmatic problem. The same President who declared the era of big government over also decentralized AmeriCorps to a fault. There is little to unite disparate programs beyond a t-shirt, a pledge, and a benefits package. I’m not sure anyone has ever thought to build an AmeriCorps statue, because corps members identify mainly with their local programs.
A new CCC would, therefore, act on the old program’s lessons about the power of common symbols, experiences, and training—specifically ones that give young people a sense of identity as effective citizens. Service initiatives should also offer basic civics education, something Americans are shockingly lacking in. They should provide shared skills in how to respond in emergencies, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks. They should teach the ways of the workplace, from showing up on time to working in teams, as well as the job-specific skills that young people need.
While greater centralization may sound anathema to the right, the model here is the military. No institution still commands such strong public confidence. As such, we should ask retired and reserve military to help structure civilian efforts to train citizens through common experiences. National service has had no greater champion than John McCain. Stanley McChrystal, the retired four-star general, chairs the top advocacy group, Service Year Alliance, whose mission is to make a year of service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans. Fuller engagement from the military would also address the stubborn view among conservatives that service programs engage in liberal political activism.
Some progressives today are pushing to guarantee jobs for all Americans who want them. Giving every young person who wants it a service opportunity can be integrated into such a plan—as it is in the Center for American Progress’s Jobs Blueprint. Or national service can be a first-stage down payment on a broader initiative. While less far-reaching, the program would build on a successful historical model and an existing implementation infrastructure. The focus of service programs would be on the Americans who are most in need of help in their formative years. Without disregarding the importance of earnings in the now, service programs put more emphasis on development for the future. They acknowledge what we need most today: not just workers, but also citizens.
The CCC’s greatest failure is America’s own, visible in 60-odd statues, exclusively of white men. The program excluded women entirely. And while it enrolled thousands of African Americans, they were segregated, subject to quotas, and often placed in inferior camps.
Here, modern AmeriCorps programs shine. At a time when many of us see citizens across the red-blue divide as virtual foreigners, service becomes a kind of domestic exchange. In one example, the National Civilian Community Corps brings together Americans from Los Angeles and Detroit to do restoration work in South Carolina. NCCC members would start their days in uniforms, doing calisthenics leavened with hip-hop. They’d go home speaking of separate identities and shared challenges. If League of Legends is the strongest community many know today, national service offers something far more hopeful.
In place of the Old South’s generals, the next CCC could build a new generation of monuments. These statues would look like all of us, and honor work Americans do together.