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Leon E. Panetta: National service needed now more than ever

Americans are emerging at last after months in hiding, but life on the other side of the shutdown is different — uncertain, anguished. 

Until recently, the only crowds you could find were those snaking the streets around food pantries and unemployment offices. Now, massive demonstrations and protests of the country’s grim racial, economic and social disparities have called historic numbers of Americans to the streets in every corner of the country. 

People are scared and angry. In a recent Panetta Institute survey of college students, 80 percent said the pandemic represented a significant change in their lives. This moment — fate’s cruel braid of a lethal pandemic, economic collapse, and rising social tension — is the most serious crisis the United States has faced since the Second World War.

But just as our nation met the moment in those dark days, we can and must do so now. Once again, the full measure of America’s resolve is being tested, but we need only look to our past to see our way through to the future. From armed conflicts and terror attacks to economic collapses and social unrest, the American tradition of defying the odds through collective sacrifice and service is as old as the country itself.

In 1788, George Washington wrote of our duty to the nation in a letter to James Madison, saying, “The consciousness of having discharged that duty which we owe to our country is superior to all other considerations.”

Today the duty to keep our country free and strong still rests with every citizen. Indeed, it’s needed now more than ever. Like the public works and conservation programs that connected workers with jobs after the Great Depression, we must again call on Americans to rebuild our communities, schools, public health facilities and care, natural resources, and our economy. Our national service infrastructure, which deploys full-time civilian service members into our communities, is the perfect vehicle.

Current funding for AmeriCorps, the popular national service program that awards service members with a living stipend and a modest education benefit to defray college debt in the model of the GI Bill, provides for about 75,000 spots annually. Its budget is equivalent to roughly 0.005 percent of the money Congress has spent responding to this virus.

Expanded investment in AmeriCorps, as the bipartisan CORPS Act has proposed, would allow for the immediate deployment of tens of thousands of new civilian service members to help students make up for the lost time in the classroom. It would ensure that medically vulnerable populations receive food and life-saving medicines, assist in workforce retraining programs, and support drive-through testing sites, among other critically needed services in communities.

For the country, the benefits are plain enough: harnessing the American spirit of service to address the unprecedented challenges created by this pandemic.

But the benefit to service members is equally important. If the country’s economic outlook is weak today, it’s especially grim for the class of 2020, which enters a job market with all the lights off. Already saddled with enormous and rising levels of student debt, it’s not hard to see why young people are anxious. 

By providing these young people with opportunities to heal the many wounds exposed and deepened by this pandemic in exchange for paying off some college debt, we will work towards solving the twin health and economic challenges of this pandemic.

The scope of this tragedy is staggering, and meeting this moment won’t be easy. But we know how because we’ve done it many times before.

Together, we’ll get to that dream of a better America. We always do.

Leon E. Panetta is a former Defense secretary and director of the CIA.


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