News and analysis
July 22, 2015

Expand National Service? Obama Calls It a 'Wonderful Idea'

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Young people have not lost their idealism, President Obama told Daily Show host Jon Stewart, but they need opportunities to put that idealism into action.

President Barack Obama said "it would be a wonderful idea" to consider how to expand national service such as AmeriCorps during an appearance on The Daily Show on Tuesday.

"The best education I got was, for a few years, me working in low-income neighborhoods as an organizer, not really knowing necessarily what I was doing but understanding that I wanted to try and commit myself to something bigger than just me," the president said.

The comments were prompted by comedian Jon Stewart, who noted that less than 1 percent of Americans have served in the military. The Daily Show host suggested mandatory national service might be a way to create a sense of "shared sacrifice."

"What about something that really changes the paradigm — college being three years and then one year of selective service?" Mr. Stewart said." That selective could be social services, it could be something else, but bringing a sense of sacrifice back to the country, and even old people could do it. I would do it."

President Obama said that it would "interesting" to see how young people responded to the idea.

Pathways to Involvement

The notion that young people have lost their idealism or are too cynical is false, President Obama said.

"But we have to give them pathways to get them involved," he said. "So we have tried to expand things like AmeriCorps as much as possible. Part of what we want to do is hopefully tie it more to getting a lower-cost college education so that they get scholarships in return for the work that they are doing. I think that would be a good place to start."

Last September, President Obama hosted a celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of AmeriCorps, one of a number of service programs run by the Corporation for National and Community Service. In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which set aggressive growth targets for AmeriCorps.

In fiscal 2014, for example, there were to be 200,000 AmeriCorps positions. But politics and budgetary constraints have hampered growth, and fewer than 80,000 positions were funded in fiscal 2014.

Rates of volunteerism remained largely flat in fiscal year 2014, at 25.3 percent, according to data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate in 2013 was 25.4 percent, the lowest since the agency began to collect data in 2002.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.