A Bigger, Bolder National Service Plan

Washington Matters

A Bigger, Bolder National Service Plan

With the economy a year into recession and nonprofit groups slashing expenses and staff because of plummeting donations, the time is right for a bigger focus on national service. There is an opportunity to shore up government-funded service projects while helping private-sector nonprofits stay afloat during very bad times. President-elect Obama might think about highlighting it in his inaugural address. It might even stir his "Generation O" -- young Obama supporters -- to think about participating in more than just his election.

Charitable nonprofits are an overlooked but vital part of the social safety net, spreading a lot of good will and needed support and services. From food banks to health clinics and homeless shelters to job training programs, they often fill gaps in social services and aid that are left by struggling local governments.

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They're in trouble now with donations falling off at the same time that demand for help is skyrocketing. As many as 100,000 of nearly 1 million nonprofits -- a stunning 10% -- that provide public service and are dependent on donations are expected to fail over the next six months. Many have hiring freezes or are trimming paid staff or reducing pay (which is usually small to begin with) to make ends meet. One idea worth considering is temporarily expanding tax incentives for private donations to nonprofit groups with domestic outreach missions. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, will argue for including that idea in a coming stimulus package. Another idea is to establish a loan fund for distressed nonprofits to be administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service

Then there are the government run service programs, such as AmeriCorps, which provides mostly young participants a small salary for providing public service assistance, such as at hospitals.  


Paul Light, a public service professor at New York University argues in The Washington Post that Obama should propose greatly expanding national service programs, especially AmeriCorps, to help take up the slack as charities cutback or collapse and push a loan relief program for students who take part for at least a year that is even more ambitious than what he suggested during the campaign. He's also like to see Obama make a JFK-like appeal for serving the nation to young adults and teens who worked to get him elected and ask them to volunteer their time and energy to non-profits.

An economy in recession and a new presidency are an ideal time for Obama to highlight and even expand his earlier national service ideas and an opportunity to reignite the American passion for pitching in. These concepts have barely been mentioned since the election and deserve far more attention.