So it's no surprise that she was my introduction into National Service. I remember the big hullabaloo over whether she would serve in the Israeli army, and then later whether she was a draft dodger. Turned out she wasn't required to serve, but it brought the idea of mandatory service of some sort to light for me.
I've often wondered if we shouldn't require our high school graduates to make a choice among military service, higher education, or possibly public service of some sort. Seems the idea is becoming much bigger in this pre-election year. So much so, that Time Magazine featured a special report in its September 10, 2007 issue.
The report discusses the current presidential candidates' stances, other countries' programs, and the need for something in the U.S. As for the next president, McCain supports incentives for National Services, Hillary supports the Public Service Academy model, Edwards wants to require community service in high schools, and Barack wants to do what tons of urban non-profits are already doing - put disadvantage youth to work on the environment, teaching them usable skills for the future while instilling a spirit of service. As mentioned above, Israel requires 3 years of military service for men, 2 for women, but only for the non-orthodox Jews of the country. Germany has a draft of 180,000 men, but half of those opt out for civilian service and foreign development work. South Africa (offering my favorite program) requires new healthcare workers (including docs, nurses, dietitians, psychologists, etc.) to spend a year working in poor areas before they receive certification to practice. The need is clear to many, but the main idea seems to be that citizens who work together to provide services stand together as a united republic.
The author, Richard Stengel, goes on to outline what a service program might look like in the States. The first thing he points out is that a plan in the U.S. would not be mandatory. Americans would throw a hissy fit over not having the "freedom" to not serve (my statement, not Stengel's), and many argue that requirements take away the meaning. Having established the voluntary nature of this potential Universal National Service, Stengel discusses what needs to be included:
1. Baby Bonds - For every baby born in the States, the Federal Government would invest in a $5k bond in that child's name. By around 20 years of age, the bond would be worth $19,000. the could then redeem the bond between the ages of 18-25 after committing to at least one year of national or military service. The bond could then be used only toward an education, a business start-up, or a home.
2. Cabinet-Level Department - No more small, independent agencies. This would need to be a priority of the president, and the department should be big enough to demonstrate that.
3. Expand Existing Programs - AmeriCorps and the Senior Volunteer Corp serve as a bit of a catch all for the small number of people who actually know about them. These should be expanded, and then divided into new branded corps and programs under the cabinet-level department.
4. Education Corps - Half of America's high school drop outs come from just 15% of the schools, mostly in urban areas and across the south. This division would match teachers and tutors with needs in the community.
5. Summer of Service - Between middle school and high school, students would be required to do a summer volunteer program, and be rewarded with a small scholarship to college.
6. Health Corps - Many children qualify for public health insurance, but are not on it. The health corps volunteers would help people navigate healthcare, and the experience might lead more people into nursing or medicine, which would help the current shortage.
7. Green Corps - Volunteers to combat climate change, focusing on the 1.5 million young Americans who are neither employed nor in school.
8. Rapid Response Reserve Corp - Katrina.
9. National Service Academy - This is what Hillary supports. Like a military academy, with tuition being subsidized by the government in exchange for service. But rather than a few years in the military after graduation, students would commit to 5 years of public service (defined in current pending legislation as federal, state, or local government - I'm in favor of non-profit work being included here, too, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards).
10. Baby-Boomer Education Bonds - With the vast number of baby boomers that will be old enough to retire, but would like to keep working, many public service positions could be filled by this population. Each volunteer would be able to designate a scholarship of $1,000 for every 500 hours of community service.
The best part about this proposal is the cost. According to Stengel, who neglects all of the other pieces, the baby bonds alone would cost $20 billion per year. While this sounds high, it's roughly two months of funding for the Iraq war, and around half of what the government currently spends on the federal prison system. In addition, the government would get dividends and would be able to cash in unused bonds. Basically, the proposal means that corporate America would have to fund a big portion of the project. And why shouldn't they?
My only concern with this idea (it mostly sounds great to me), is what happens to the nonprofits out there that are working on this now? It would be great if non-profits weren't needed, but given the government's reputation for never actually offering enough funding for things like this, they probably still would be. But would people still donate? If the government had this program, would donors still turn to NGOs for social services?
Maybe. But I've got to admit it's a scary thought for those of us in the sector.
Michael Kinsley has a pretty interesting argument against any form of universal service. A piece of it:
As it happens, we already have a system for inducing truly voluntary activities that benefit the public. It's called free-market capitalism. It works this way: if you need something done, you offer enough money to induce someone to do it. There is no need for inspiration or other malarkey. In fact, the voluntary nature of transactions under capitalism is what gives our economic system its moral authority. And if the need that has to be satisfied is social — if satisfying it would benefit everybody or the worst-off among us who need help — we have another well established system called taxation. It works this way: through democratic processes, we decide as a society that something is worth doing or someone is worth helping. Then we tax ourselves in order to buy this service from someone who wishes to sell it for the amount we are willing to pay.
This will be an interesting one to watch, folks.