An interim report recently published by the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service is floating the idea of requiring young Americans to enlist for nonmilitary service. For more than a year, the bipartisan panel has been studying the idea and looking at ways to implement a universal service program, which it sees as an opportunity to bolster national unity.
The idea of requiring young people to spend a period of time in service to the country is nothing new. During the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton showed support for legislation creating a national civil service program, but the plan has never gained meaningful traction.
Since the U.S. government eliminated the military draft in 1973 in response to public backlash to the Vietnam War, many Americans have been wary of mandatory government service in any form. But we think it’s time to look at the idea of nonmilitary service with fresh eyes. Such a program, if implemented properly, could successfully inspire a generation of young Americans with a much needed sense of civic knowledge while at the same time benefiting communities and generating interest in careers in public service.
Currently, about 2.4 million people, or 10 percent of the population, serve in some aspect of the military. On the civilian side, approximately 75,000 serve AmeriCorps and 7,000 in Peace Corps. Another 2 million Americans work in federal civilian jobs, 5 million in state government and 14 million in local and tribal governments.
However, in a country of nearly 330 million people, the panel sees untapped potential — especially among younger generations whose track record of volunteerism demonstrates an interest in service. According to the report, “Over 28 percent of Millennials report volunteering in 2017, performing roughly 1.5 billion hours of community service.”
But those young people who currently volunteer for programs like AmeriCorps, Peace Corps and City Year tend to only serve because they have the means to do so. Unfortunately, not everyone who wants to give back may have the time or financial cushion to volunteer for free or live for an extended period of time on a modest stipend.
Creating an incentivized universal service program would open up volunteer opportunities to all young Americans. Indeed, any proposed program should include a mix of creative incentives such as student loan forgiveness or deferment, tuition assistance, room and board stipends, scholarships and college credit so people can leave their period of service with something tangible.
That said, let’s not overlook the intangible benefits. A required period of service at the conclusion of high school or before entering college would instill new, more empathetic and enlightened sense of patriotism. Participants would gain a better understanding of how government functions and exactly what it does for people. They would also receive real-world experiences and job training they could leverage into a future career.
Further, the experience would provide participants with an opportunity to see the country and interact with communities and populations they otherwise would not. The United States is vast and diverse; everyone deserves to see as much of it as possible.
The program would push young people out of their bubbles and challenge their notions of what it means to be an American. That’s a powerful, humbling experience for everyone involved, from low-income people who may never get the chance to leave their hometowns to the wealthy whose privilege may insulate them from the real world.
As a country, we have largely lost our sense of the common good, of doing something that helps others even when it doesn’t immediately benefit us. If we are going to find our way out of our current moment of divisiveness, we need to work to find the principles we hold in common and become better, more informed and empathetic citizens. Implementing a new universal service program would lay that foundation while building a lifelong commitment to civic engagement for generations to come.