03:52 - Source: CNN
Should all Americans be required to serve?

Editor’s Note: Howard Schultz is chairman emeritus of Starbucks, co-founder of the Schultz Family Foundation and the executive co-chair of the Serve America Together campaign. Stanley McChrystal is a former Army general, founder of the McChrystal Group and founding chairperson of the nonprofit, Service Year Alliance. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

After graduating from college last year, Ora Tucker Meadows chose to spend a year in service to our country by assisting teachers at an elementary school in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Illinois.

When the Covid-19 crisis shut down her school, Meadows, a member of AmeriCorps, a national service organization that she joined out of college, had the option of hunkering down at home. Instead, she found a new way to serve: She spent her days distributing lunches to students, sorting food at a local pantry and checking on seniors who were isolating at home. Now she is tutoring summer-school students online.

Ora Tucker Meadows

For decades, government-funded national service programs like AmeriCorps have been dispatching thousands of young people to help their fellow Americans in communities across the country.

In turn, those who serve receive a modest stipend while gaining new skills and a true sense of purpose.

During the last three months, legions of Americans participating in national service programs have stepped up to provide much-needed assistance for coronavirus response activities.

In Colorado, for example, AmeriCorps members have mobilized to assist with contact tracing. In Philadelphia, they make and deliver meals to those who can’t afford food. And in Minnesota, members teach online classes to public school students and work at overwhelmed nonprofits.

Howard Schultz

“AmeriCorps helped me turn this scary time into an opportunity to serve my community in new and exciting ways,” Meadows said. “Serving has helped me feel less helpless.”

The need for pandemic-related support services will only increase as the virus continues to cause health, economic, educational and emotional problems. With nearly 4 million coronavirus cases in the US to date, hospitals are again reaching capacity.

Meanwhile, 40 million Americans are out of work, students are falling behind due to extensive time out of school and more families are struggling to put food on the table.

Stanley McChrystal

No silver bullet can solve these daunting problems, of course, but one option has real potential to make a meaningful difference: expanding America’s national service programs by increasing the number of people who can serve, and those who are served.

Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough national service opportunities available for those who want to participate.

We can change that.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of eight Democratic and eight Republican senators, led by Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), introduced and backed the CORPS Act to build upon the existing national service infrastructure and help our country respond to Covid-19.

The CORPS Act would double the number of AmeriCorps positions available this year to 150,000, and provide a total of 600,000 national service opportunities over the next three years nationwide, including in areas of the country where national service programs do not yet reach.

Just as young people were disproportionately affected by the 2008 financial crisis, they face a similar fate due to the economic fallout from Covid-19. For college students graduating into an uncertain job market, as well as those delaying college during the pandemic, national service is an alternative to waiting for businesses to start hiring and campuses to reopen.

The CORPS Act increases the stipend paid to corps participants to 175% of the federal poverty line, raising the minimum pay from $12,760 today to $22,330. The bill also doubles the education award young people can earn to pay for school or pay down student loans – tying it to twice the value of the maximum Pell grant.

By doing this, the CORPS Act offers a new path for high school students and teenagers in low-income households. Many of these young people not only face higher rates of unemployment than the rest of the country, but they are on the verge of becoming more permanently disconnected from school and work.

Increasing the stipend and educational benefits for AmeriCorps members means young people from less affluent backgrounds can afford to participate in national service, a strong first step towards breaking down inequities that, historically, have made national service untenable for low-income populations, particularly people of color. A year of full-time, paid service – a service year – can change the trajectory of their lives.

Expanding national service programs also has the potential to break down political, social, economic and religious barriers causing such divisiveness in our country. Those who serve – as well as those who are served – often walk away from the experience with greater understanding and respect for those who come from different backgrounds.

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As business and military leaders, we believe that providing more paid opportunities for young people to serve their country has multiple benefits, and we are committed to doing everything in our power to get the CORPS Act across the finish line.

We recently sent a letter to congressional leadership in support of this bill signed by a bipartisan group of five former Cabinet secretaries, including Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice, and dozens of national service supporters. Today, we call on other leaders to join us in this effort.

In this moment of crisis, when so many Americans are eager to support others and so many are in need of support, expanding national service is an option we can and must embrace. We urge Congress to prioritize this investment and include the CORPS Act in the next coronavirus relief bill.

This article has been updated to reflect the number of additional senators now supporting the CORPS Act.