Listen: The Tree Army

On the podcast Social Distance, James Hamblin has often argued for a modern version of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Roosevelt’s “tree army” took those unemployed in the Great Depression and put them to work in American conservation. The country faces a similar pair of problems today: a lot of people need jobs and the country needs a lot of work.

Senator Chris Coons thinks national service is the solution now, just as it was nearly a century ago. He has led the effort for the bipartisan CORPS Act, which would dramatically expand the ranks of AmeriCorps and make the program affordable for more young people. He joins Hamblin and Katherine Wells to discuss the bill and why national service is needed in this moment.

Listen to their conversation here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Why do you think national service should be part of the recovery?

Chris Coons: I’ve personally had the experience of standing up and leading an AmeriCorps program that had 150 members in ten different cities across the United States. I’ve seen the ways in which it locally delivers significant additional resources—hands-on to deal with real problems—whether that problem is getting kids back to school, tutoring them remotely, continuing to school them from home, addressing nutrition and hunger problems through food banks, connecting farmers and food sources to folks who are newly hungry.

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Or whether it’s simply trying to do what the Civilian Conservation Corps did 80 years ago and help recover and rebuild the infrastructure in our national parks and on our public lands. This is a great program that creates opportunity, particularly for younger Americans. And there are millions of younger Americans whose job programs or prospects, whose educational future, has gone sideways during this pandemic and the recession that it’s caused.

James Hamblin: You said my favorite word there, Civilian Conservation Corps, which is three words. One of my chief concerns from a public health perspective is just outdoor space. It seems clear here that is gonna be a big part of preventing viral spread. People need places to go to move around at a distance. National parks are crowded. City parks are crowded. Some people feel uncomfortable going out at all. We need these places from a public health perspective. We have people who need jobs. This seems like a great moment for particularly an angle like that. Do you think there’s momentum right now in the country where something like that could actually come to pass?

Coons: I agree, Jim. One of the things I’ve seen in my own home neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware, is a record number of people out walking their dogs and walking with friends in the neighborhood parks, just trying to get a break from hours and hours spent at home, cloistered with their families doing their jobs by Zoom. When I was county executive, the county I was responsible for had 7,000 acres of parkland. And a lot of it hadn’t really been maintained or developed to a level that would allow active recreation.

As you referenced, 80 years ago during the Great Depression, one of the programs of the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps. That created an opportunity for literally millions of American men to go and build some of the infrastructure of our national parks that we’re still enjoying today. Another program, the Works Progress Administration, was more broadly distributed throughout the country. And actually, there are pieces of infrastructure in the county parks in my home community that were built by the WPA in the 1930s. One of the things that I found most satisfying was having AmeriCorps members and some community volunteers finish a project that the WPA had started, but that had run out of money in the 1930s.

We need better access to open space, to public lands. And this could be the resources, of course, partnered with folks in local government and folks in the building trades. The people who serve in AmeriCorps typically are at the lowest skill levels. There are some professional corps, but most of what they’re doing is providing short-term physical contributions to infrastructure. To do anything larger in terms of, say, a bridge, they have to be partnered up with folks from local government or from labor who’ve actually got the skills. But one of the things that I think is underappreciated about AmeriCorps as a program is instead of looking at it as a gap year or a year off for college kids, it has actually functioned more as the first rung on a ladder to apprentice programs and then into either the skilled trades or into a professional career in local government or in local construction and trades in many cases.

Hamblin: When the Civilian Conservation Corps was up and running in the 1930s, people enlisted. They got outfits and a badge and they were going off to do this thing for the country. There were overtones of military aspects and national pride: You’re going to work to build our country. I think conservation tends to not have a ton of bipartisan support these days. I wonder if there’s a way to kind of harness some of that national pride, or whatever was able to come together for us in the 1930s, in this moment?

Coons: There’s been a broad movement among veterans and military leaders, business, private sector leaders, Republican and Democrat, to support the idea of national service as a way of bringing our country together, as a way of helping younger people have the experience of being with and serving our nation alongside people from other regions and other backgrounds. My own father was a sergeant in the 1st Infantry in Germany, and for the rest of his life, he talked about that two-year experience he had of serving alongside men from other religions, from other regions, from other races. For a Protestant white kid from Boston, that was really the first time in his life he understood what it meant to be an American. Sure, he understood that being in the Army was part of serving our country, but I don’t think he really had an appreciation for our nation before that.

And I saw the same experience with the young people who I helped recruit and train and support in the Americorps program that I led in the early ’90s. They were mostly working in schools, in tough inner city schools, providing tutoring and mentoring and after-school programing. Whether AmeriCorps members are helping with disaster recovery or tutoring or building homes, I have found over and over: it strengthens their own skills and sense of connectivity, but it also strengthens their sense of national pride. You mentioned the CCC had badges and uniforms. AmeriCorps also has logos and training and equipment that identifies them as AmeriCorps members and creates a sense of pride in the common work.

Hamblin: So when you have a program that’s doing these really localized, specialized efforts tailored to the needs of the community, how do you get national support?

Coons: AmeriCorps now has a nearly 30-year record of actually delivering results. There are senators and congressmen, mayors and governors, nonprofit leaders and business leaders who have seen the difference that YouthBuild, City Year, Habitat for Humanity, Food Corps have made in communities all over the country.

Hamblin: Well, this all sounds good. Is it going to happen?

Coons: I’ve worked in the last two months to recruit 16 co-sponsors: eight Republican co-sponsors and eight Democrats. And the Republicans run the gamut from well-known senators like Senators John Cornyn, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham. My lead co-sponsor is Senator Roger Wicker, a conservative Republican who is also willing to support this program alongside me. I’ve got great Democrats as co-sponsors on this bill: folks like Jack Reed, Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar.

What this bill would do: increase the living stipend, increase the education award so that a broader range of Americans can afford to do a year of full-time service, double the number of available slots from 75,000 today, to 150,000, and then gradually increase it over three years. Ten years ago, we authorized 250,000 AmeriCorps positions a year. We’ve never come close to funding it.

This would make that possible over the next three years. It would meet the moment of the combination of a pandemic and a recession. It is an existing nationwide program that is scalable and it would allow work that needs to get done at the community level to get done. It’s had broad support in the House and the Senate. And I’m optimistic it’s gonna be part of our response in this next COVID relief package.