Do We Need a National Service Program?

Brian Brown: David Brooks says it’s a solution to the “Great Divorce” between rich and poor. The facts, Michael Westen reminds us, say otherwise.

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In one of my favorite TV shows, Burn Notice, Michael Westen is a “burned” (fired) spy who finds himself stuck in Miami (I know, rough life). He’s obsessed with getting his old job back, because he’s convinced he was doing something good. What he doesn’t notice is that in year after year in Miami, he’s built quite a foundation in the city, helping one person after another who has run afoul of scammers or drug dealers and who can’t be helped by the police. He has good friends; they protect each other, help each other, and are doing a tremendous amount of good in Miami—but Michael has tunnel vision; he acts as though doing his old big job is the only way to make a difference.

Finally, in fury at his blindness, his clearer-headed girlfriend Fiona slaps him upside the head with this rebuke: “You only care about the idea of people. You don’t give a d—n about the ones who have your back every single day.”

Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart,” is on shelves today. (Humane Pursuits will have a symposium on it next month.) David Brooks’s column summarizes its argument, but the gist is that America’s richest 20% and poorest 30% are incredibly divided, and all the myths you’ve heard from both GOP and Dems about how it’s all the elites’ fault are…just myths. Brooks’s ends his column with this thought:

“I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.”

This is a Michael Westen idea, and I’ll explain why.


We’ve had national service programs for a long time. Hoover and FDR started them, and most presidents since then have either launched expansions of the programs or their funding.  I don’t know how much time Brooks has spent following the national services programs we already have—most of which these days are under the umbrella of AmeriCorps, a Clinton-era creation—but I’ve spent a while. For a year (2008-9), it was my job, and since then I’ve maintained an interest; partly since Teach for America was big at my college since its founder was an alum, and partly because I’ve worked for a major foundation that deals with a lot of these programs and their graduates. And I think Brooks is headed in the wrong direction on this one.

I know Brooks wasn’t trying to fix all the problems of civilization in one brief paragraph (the larger point that the rich need to find a way to share what they’ve figured out with the poor is well taken). I also know a lot of good people who have worked in the service programs and had good experiences. I even had the honor of giving a lecture on this topic at the Clinton School for Public Service in Arkansas and talking with James “Skip” Rutherford, one of the original directors of AmeriCorps. I’ve seen the good stuff, trust me. But Brooks is looking in the wrong place for the fix, for the same reason Michael Westen was. These programs have a lot of good people running them and working for them. But merely by virtue of being national service programs, they operate with weaknesses and tensions that no reforms could fix.

The Problem

One tension in the programs is the question of whether they exist to benefit the poor people being served, or the rich people serving them. AmeriCorps leaders have always claimed both; if you spend a couple years in service, it makes you more likely to serve afterward (and, as Brooks seems to think, more likely to keep helping those poor people). And of course, you’re lending your fine mind to fixing those poor people who are the victims of their own institutions.

But more and more studies are seeing disappointing results from AmeriCorps programs, for reasons outlined by Matt Bruenig in The Oklahoma Daily just a few days ago. More and more local institutions are refusing to deal with participants, who tend to be short-term, unskilled people with no local accountability (their bosses can’t fire them or affect their salaries) who are doing jobs that, especially nowadays, local skilled people could do better. Airdropping a rich college kid with an art history degree into a failing inner-city school doesn’t appear to be the fix for the deep and complex problems that that school faces (which, contrary to the theory of Teach for America, AmeriCorps’ flagship program these days, go way beyond bad teachers).

The numbers aren’t any better on the “it’s good for the rich people” side. Back in 2009 when I provided research for the measly seven senators who opposed increasing funding for AmeriCorps, I was skeptical of the data brandished to show that AmeriCorps participants were more likely to serve afterward. They showed correlation, not causation—and logically, anybody willing to spend two years in service is probably the civic-minded type already. Now there’s data to back that up; a six-year study by a sociology team at Stanford found that “graduates” of Teach for America were actually less likely to be civically engaged afterward.

This isn’t to say the programs have done no good at all, but they haven’t lived up to expectations, and they certainly are not solutions for the deep-seated problems outlined by Charles Murray.

The Reason

I think the reason for the shortcomings in both areas is the same, and it’s a fundamental flaw in the concept of a national service program as such. In some ways, it goes back to what I said in “Fixing a Place.” The flaw is that the programs are altruism-based. They’re about rich people deciding, out of the goodness of their hearts, to devote a specific amount of time to helping The Poor—not actual poor people, but the idea of poor people. By that, I mean the programs are not rooted in communities, or even an accurate understanding of what community is. It’s a simple matter of pairing the rich kid with a random group of poor people. The kid from Manhattan wants to serve in Phoenix? Sure, we have an app for that. Never mind that the kid has no connection to Phoenix, no relationships, no social capital, no obligation to that community. He doesn’t know what makes it tick, what strengths it has, or what makes it what it is. Participation might feed the kid’s narcissistic notion that the strange community needs him, at least until after two years when he leaves the school no better institutionally than he found it.

In fact, the programs are built on the Michael Westen idea that their purpose is to solve social problems—national social problems. The TFA kid, like Michael, is helping solve a national problem…in a satellite location, for a fixed period of time that he may very well consider to be “doing his time,” sort of like mandatory military service in Israel. That well-meaning kid is learning to be a philanthropist, but he is not learning how to be a citizen (if you’re not clear on the distinction, read my column on “Saving the World, Professionalized”). That’s why he won’t necessarily volunteer more afterward, and it’s why an influx of well-meaning, ignorant rich kids from Manhattan isn’t the way to help poor people rebuild their demolished social infrastructure.

The problem with national service programs is they don’t build connections between rich, poor, and place. They are Michael Westen’s dream of signing up to be a spy so he can help The People somewhere; not Michael Westen’s reality of developing the ties to family, friends, and his community that allow him to make such a difference in so many lives. And that is why they don’t foster precisely what’s missing: a shared responsibility for a community and the local, organic institutions that make it work. The solution to Brooks’s Great Divorce will have to be a way to link the rich and poor through a shared community, not shared good intentions.


  • February 1, 2012

    Bryan Wandel

    The kind of service program you seem to disparage is one in which the rich bring their good intentions to the poor, rather than being in community with them. What about a mandatory service program that took both rich and poor kids together to do some kinds of projects? I realize the word “mandatory” is probably going to cause problems, but is this the kind of mixing that would produce better results?

    I think of Israel, with its mandatory military service. I don’t know what kind of effect that has on their rich-poor relations, but I expect it might at least be closer to the intended effects that Brooks is looking for.

    What are your thoughts on that kind of service?

  • February 1, 2012

    Anne Snyder

    Bryan, I agree. The military may be the only institution in modern times capable of fostering this sort of cross-caste mutuality…at least in the U.S. As one veteran commented on David’s column: “every man’s the same in a 120-ft foxhole.”

    Tangential musing: Is the sort of divide Murray describes more easily overcome by women? I ask because the military is not the obvious outlet for women to bridge cultural gaps, though it’s available. For reasons both cultural and behavioral we seem to have many more channels for cross-cultural engagement. Go to any university today, and you’ll find the humanitarian and study abroad programs dominated by women.

  • February 3, 2012


    I realize the word “mandatory” is probably going to cause problems, but is this the kind of mixing that would produce better results?

    The word “mandatory” in itself doesn’t “cause problems.” It is questionable, though, whether it is any of the government’s business to force upon citizens certain activities in an attempt at social engineering. I can at least understand military conscription whose purpose is national defense. But forcing rich and poor kids to work together?

  • March 28, 2012

    Caitlin Barr

    This is a great post! Giving my ideas for things to write… btw have you ever read Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions?” I may write something related to that.

  • March 28, 2012

    Brian Brown

    We haven’t touched that on HP yet; great idea.