EUGENE, Ore. — The economic woes from the COVID-19 pandemic parallel the Great Depression in some ways, and new research suggests national service programs from the 1930s could be useful for the recovery and for young people who need work.
A Brookings Institution report calls on the country to expand programs like AmeriCorps, YouthBuild and conservation corps over the next few years.
Jeff Parker, executive director for the Eugene-based conservation nonprofit Northwest Youth Corps, backs the idea.
“Our goal is to help these young people build skills and go on to become the next generation of leaders, in whatever capacity they choose that to be,” Parker commented. “And for many of them, it might not be conservation, but the time spent in the woods helps them build skills and better understanding of community and leadership.”
The Brookings Institution proposed expanding the number of national service positions to 600,000 by 2024, and increasing the living allowance to at least 175% of the federal poverty level, or about 22,000 dollars a year. It estimates this would cost about $19 billion.
The report also noted national service programs could prevent young people from becoming disconnected from the economy and society.
Parker explained one Northwest Youth Corps program assembles people into teams for labor-intensive work, like trail maintenance and wildfire fuels reduction.
He added participants work alongside folks who might be very different from them.
“It’s amazing the amount of social growth that can happen,” Parker observed. “And really, it’s because success or failure depends on the team. No one person can maintain all of that trail by themselves; no one person can plant all those trees or do all the thinning by themselves.”
Parker remarked he’s seen more calls to revive national service programs in the last nine months than ever before.
For organizations with a conservation focus, he said the need for maintenance on public lands across the country is there, and so is the demand from young people.
“I know at Northwest Youth Corps, we have a waitlist every year,” Parker recounted. “That for every one person we put in the woods, we have to say ‘no’ to three others. And that’s not uncommon with our sister and brother corps across the country.”
Parker noted conservation corps of the 1930s were top-down federal programs. However, today they’re public-private partnerships. He believes the federal government should expand the existing programs in order to increase capacity.
Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.