Monday’s Mtg: Do We Need Universal National Service for Young Americans?

National service is an old idea that’s getting new life, including at some pretty high political levels. Requiring every young American to devote 1-2 years to a job helping their communities and their country was briefly considered after the military draft was ended in 1973. But, the idea never really got much traction, in large part because no one liked that it would be mandatory or could think of that many public service jobs to fill.

National service got new life in the 1990s. A 1994 law proudly signed by President Clinton created AmeriCorps. A small voluntary program, AmeriCorps finances and facilitates 75,000 public service jobs for young Americans. Other federal service programs. Like Teach for America, also were set up. Candidate Barack Obama made expanding national service opportunities a plank in his agenda in 2008. His Serve America Act authorized up to 250,000 jobs in AmeriCorps, but Congress refused to fund it. National service has been just one part of Obama’s ongoing – and little noticed – effort to resurrect the old-fashioned (and once-bipartisan) concept of citizenship. Emphasizing both the individual rights and mutual obligations of being an American is a theme he has returned to again and again throughout his presidency.

Now, Democratic presidential candidates hoping to succeed Obama have upped the ante, embracing expanded national service in one form or another. The most ambitious plan is Martin O’Malley’s, but Hillary Clinton wants to provide debt-free college education in exchange for national service. (Bernie Sanders has not matched these promises, specifically, but he surely favors federal support for full employment and public service jobs.) Just last month (12/15), Congress closed some of the funding gap for AmeriCorps and other national service programs, with some Republican support.

But, of course, most Conservatives HATE the idea of national service, even voluntary service. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives has tried repeatedly to abolish AmeriCorps and zero-out all national service funding. They argue that national service is potentially coercive of young people and that the programs add no value.

So, national service will be a campaign issue in 2016, especially if the GOP refuses to come up with any ideas for lowering college costs. I thought it would be useful for Civilized Conversation to go over the basics of the Dems’ national service proposals and pros and cons of the issue.

Discussion Questions –

  1. WHAT: What federal national service programs exist now? AmeriCorps, Teach for America, SeniorCorps, etc. What help do they give and for what kinds of jobs?
  2. HOW USFUL: How do we know whether these programs are worth their cosrs; i.e., that they add value without duplicating what’s already available to young people seeking service jobs?
  3. PROPOSALS: Who is proposing what kinds of expansions of national service? How would the programs work?
  4. PROS/CONS: Arguments for and against expanding the programs.
  5. POLITICS: Do people care enough about this to matter in 2016 election? Will it turn out young voters for the Democrats?


Next Week: Is American democracy at risk of unravelling?



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