Why Biden Plans to Use National Service to Address Climate Change and the COVID-19 Pandemic
New polling data shows national service is popular among young people and the general public just as the Biden administration has announced two new expansions.
With the U.S. facing multiple crises, the Biden administration is releasing executive actions at a rapid clip, trying—as his campaign said—to build back better. What many may have missed among high-profile efforts like speeding up vaccine production and distribution is that the administration has also begun creating two new national service programs, a Public Health Corps and a Civilian Climate Corps. These programs will address climate change and the pandemic head on while creating positions for unemployed youth. The possibility of using national service to tackle three core challenges at once does not just make for smart policy; it’s also popular.
New polling data shows national service is extremely popular across party lines and young Americans want to serve.
National service advocate Serve America Together just released new survey data from Change Research, a polling firm, showing that Congress expanding national service has strong majority support generally (77 percent of respondents), and across party lines. The survey of over 2,000 adults also suggests high interest among young Americans in participating in a national service program: 44 percent of those aged 18 to 28 said they were very or somewhat likely to serve in a national service position, a number which reaches 60 percent for surveyed people of color. Respondents who expressed this interest were asked for their top three reasons, and the most cited were giving back or making a difference (38 percent), gaining experience or skills (26 percent), and personal growth or direction (25 percent). 62 percent of people over 28 said they would recommend a national service program to their child or another young person. And notably, two-thirds of those surveyed want the Biden administration to prioritize investments that heal the country’s divides, and 63 percent of those polled think investing in national service is a vehicle for accomplishing this goal.
The two new programs will grapple with our climate and public health crises.
These two programs are promising, but as with all of the Biden administration’s executive actions, the real work lies ahead. The Civilian Climate Corps is included in the administration’s January 27 “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” but it is really just a one-paragraph request for a more detailed strategy to stand up a corps from the Secretary of the Interior, in collaboration with the Secretary of Agriculture and other relevant agencies. However, the executive order (EO) does specifically task agencies to work “within existing appropriations” and “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs” to “conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”
The proposal for a U.S. Public Health Job Corps is also but one component of an executive order, in this case the comprehensive January 21 “Executive Order on Establishing the COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board and Ensuring a Sustainable Public Health Workforce for COVID-19 and Other Biological Threats.” This EO likewise requests a plan from the Secretaries of Health and Human Services Homeland Security, Labor, and Education, as well as the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (the agency that manages AmeriCorps) and others. The Public Health Corps will support contact tracing, vaccination, testing, and other public health tasks that will end the pandemic, and will be part of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program. (The NCCC houses FEMA Corps, which the EO identifies as a model for this new Public Health Corps.)
These proposals preview more substantive plans, but they do raise questions.
I have previously written about the policy design choices that can ensure national service expansions provide adequate workforce training and maximize the creation of equitable opportunities, especially for young people of color. (See here for overall recommendations and here for recommendations specific to a Climate Corps.) And while the administration’s proposals are light on details, they get some notable policy design elements right. The Climate Corps focuses on sustainability and resiliency projects that can be started quickly and require skills that participants—who are only likely to sign up for a year of service—can rapidly learn. And the Public Health Corps will make use of AmeriCorps NCCC’s established infrastructure and expertise in how to hire, train, and deploy lots of young people rapidly.
It is important that both programs excel at preparing members for jobs and high-quality career pathways that come after their Corps terms end.
Yet even these outlines of plans to come raise some questions. It is important that both programs excel at preparing members for jobs and high-quality career pathways that come after their Corps terms end. For example, the administration should create the programming and supports necessary to directly link graduates to the jobs that Biden’s Build Back Better plan will create.
For the Climate Corps, specifically, the requirement that the requested plan work within existing appropriations suggests that the initiative may compete for resources with current AmeriCorps programs. These programs already employ about 75,000 youth annually, with many of them providing desperately needed support to cash-strapped community-based organizations that serve people suffering record job losses and food and housing insecurity. Now is of course not the time to decrease the number of AmeriCorps members working in these areas.
It’s also worth noting that Americorps members currently do not receive competitive pay; worse, the current participant stipends often add up to less than the local minimum wage. This reality locks out most low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color, and who have borne the worst of the pandemic and of environmental injustices. These would-be applicants cannot afford to take an AmeriCorps position that pays an annual stipend of only $4,000 to $25,000. While the administration has the authority to increase stipend sizes or to shift AmeriCorps slots into a new Climate Corps—as the EO suggests it might—these actions would reduce the number of available positions unless Congress provides new appropriations. If the administration’s ambitious plans for these new programs are to create an adequate number of positions for the people who most need the opportunity, then these corps will need more resources. In a promising sign that Congress understands this challenge, the House Education and Labor Committee’s budget reconciliation package that advanced last week includes $1 billion to support Americorps in the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
These executive actions are a strong start, but Congress must help them meet their potential to support our climate and public health.
National service’s popularity among young people and the general public suggests that the administration has made a smart decision in martialing service to confront our public health, climate, and economic crises. National service is up to the task, but these are not small crises. Youth unemployment is much higher than our overall unemployment rate; thousands of Americans are dying of COVID-19 every day; and, to pick just two examples of our resiliency and sustainability needs, the United States could support another sixty billion trees that would capture carbon and prevent erosion, and the National Parks maintenance backlog for its protected areas, roads and bridges, buildings, trails, and campgrounds numbers in the billions of dollars.
Congress must create the conditions for these two new corps programs to succeed. This means appropriating enough for them to operate at an adequate scale and to pay corps members a livable wage. With such resources in place, the programs will be able to recruit from frontline communities, and center equity in other ways. Our nation’s health, environment, and youth deserve this chance.