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A national service response to a national disaster

Dentons
Faris Albakheet, left, of Busboys and Poets, and Robert Laster of Saval Foodservice, distribute free food to restaurant industry workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic at Fourteenth and V Streets Northwest in Washington, D.C., on April 17. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

By AnnMaura Connolly and Eric Tanenblatt, Dentons

Ed. note: This article was originally published in Roll Call on May 6, 2020.

We can’t spend our way out of our problems, but we can serve our way out of them together.

The crises the United States knows best — fires and floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, school shootings and mass violence — have all been proximate to individual communities or states.

Government and civil society are prepared for this backyard disaster paradigm because we’ve been called to respond to so many before. But the coronavirus pandemic is a uniquely national crisis affecting every nook and cranny of the country, and policymakers have struggled to develop a “whole of America” response.

Predictably, the gut reaction in Washington has been to spend money — lots. But even as Congress writes trillion-dollar checks to stabilize the economy, the unprecedented strain on our health systems, schools and essential public services is so acute that stimulus alone won’t be enough.

America will need to tap a well far deeper than its treasury if it’s going to pull itself out of this hole. We’re not going to spend our way out of these problems, but we can serve our way out of them together.

Even in isolation, Americans are united and hungry to serve and help their communities recover, but few know how. New legislation introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers would connect this profound desire to serve with concrete opportunities to get the country back to normal by increasing our investment in civilian national service.

National service programs, which augment the enormous contributions of community and faith-based nonprofits by mobilizing Americans in sustained service, are among the least funded in the constellation of federal agencies even though they generate some of the highest returns on investment for government and society.

AmeriCorps is already on the ground working in hard-hit communities, just as it’s done in every local natural disaster for the last 25 years.

All across the country, AmeriCorps members are supporting testing and contact tracing efforts at the direction of governors; assisting with intake at drive-thru COVID-19 testing centers to support the CDC; organizing blood drives; setting up temporary isolation sites; delivering emergency food and supplies to vulnerable populations; making support calls to elderly and medically fragile community members; and supporting students to mitigate the tremendous learning loss resulting from school closures.

In schools, where students and teachers are making the bumpy transition to distance learning, AmeriCorps members’ work will be felt for a generation as they address the twin challenges of prolonged classroom absences and historic state and local revenue shortfalls. The longer students are out of conventional classroom settings, the more likely they are to slip through the cracks as already stressed parents step into the void as unprepared educators. As if the distance learning paradigm wasn’t challenging enough, research from the last recession showed that forced cuts in education spending tracked with poorer student performance and that downturns in families’ personal economies negatively affected students. AmeriCorps members are addressing those challenges in real time by providing meaningful virtual and academic support as students navigate this “new normal.”

The limited funding currently available has allowed AmeriCorps to deploy 75,000 national service members to help address core weaknesses in education, the economy and public health exposed by this pandemic.

But by leaning into the robust national service infrastructure that supports AmeriCorps, as Sen. Chris Coons and other House and Senate lawmakers have proposed, the country could deploy around a quarter of a million civilian national service members annually to help us respond to and recover from this pandemic.

That’s a quarter of a million service members helping to teach and tutor America’s students, testing and treating our work force, and doing the hard work of pulling us out of this.

The road to normal is a long and uncertain one, but one thing is clear: National service is delivering meaningful results in communities across the country, and Congress needs to support its vital response and recovery work.

AnnMaura Connolly is the president of Voices for National Service and the chief strategy officer of City Year Inc., an education nonprofit funded partly by AmeriCorps and dedicated to helping public schools.

Eric Tanenblatt is a former Republican board member of the Corporation for National & Community Service, the independent federal agency that administers AmeriCorps. He serves as the global public policy chair of the international law firm Dentons.

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