Alter: A New Era of National Service Begins

At a dinner for members of Congress at the White House last Wednesday, Michelle Obama approached George Miller, the mustachioed Californian who chairs the influential House Education and Labor Committee. The two had never met before. The first lady told the congressman how excited she was to learn that he was preparing to move legislation on Monday to greatly expand national service. After leaving corporate law and Chicago City Hall, Michelle had worked for a nonprofit, Public Allies, dedicated to expanding service. She has been passionate on the subject ever since and sees it as central to the mission of her husband's presidency. When President Obama had lunch with Miller the next day, Obama, speaking from long domestic experience, told him jokingly that his wife meant business: "Sounds to me like you better get that bill out of committee."

On Monday, Miller will announce that the GIVE Act (don't ask what the acronym means; too clunky) is on its way to passage by the House. Because representatives of the House, Senate and White House have been working together on a bipartisan basis for weeks, the skids are now greased for quick Senate passage of the Kennedy-Hatch Act for national service, the only specific piece of legislation the president mentioned in his address to Congress last month. Differences between the House and Senate versions will be minor.

By early April, Obama will sign landmark legislation expanding AmeriCorps from 75,000 participants to 250,000 over the next few years. This will take the national-service movement to a new level, create thousands of jobs and help young Americans pay for college. It's another sign that the president and his allies on Capitol Hill intend to redeem the promise of last year's campaign a helluva lot earlier than even his most ardent supporters expected.

"There's a perfect storm around service," says Heather Higginbottom, deputy domestic-policy adviser in the White House. "You've got a president and first lady who care about service, bipartisan support on the Hill and a commitment in the budget to expansion."

The outlines of what will pass, reported here for the first time:

Miller stresses two new components in particular. "We wanted to make sure that veterans are a fundamental part of it," he says. "And all through the process we were trying to link students to education, education, education." The idea is that young people having trouble paying for school—or looking for a job after graduation from high school or college (hundreds of thousands this spring)—will consider national service. An increased college stipend in exchange for tutoring, mentoring, feeding and other service activities could be attractive for students who have been dropping out of college in record numbers.

Expanding national service is only the beginning of Obama's commitment to building an army of changemakers. A new White House Office of Social Entrepreneurship will look for ways to help thousands of nonprofit organizations improve the country. The "multiplier effect" of doing good offers "social stimulus" every bit as important as economic, though it provides that, too.

As hard times set in, working for social change is a twofer—a source of jobs and inspiration in a nation that badly needs both.