Irrespective of who’s anointed at the presidential coronation in January, many more Americans will soon be performing national service, including compulsory military tours of duty in the never-ending War Against Terror and the soon-to-be-announced Wars Against Sedition, Starvation, Unemployment, and Internal Insurrection, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
John McCain has said, “After 9/11, I think we made a mistake by telling Americans they ought to go on a trip, or shop. I think we should’ve told Americans to join the military, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, volunteer organizations – all the organizations that allow people to serve this nation.” Most recently, he asked “for a concrete plan of action on the need for all of us to serve.”
Not to be outdone, Barack Obama has a Plan for Universal Voluntary Citizen Service, which will help “All Americans Serve Their Country.” He wants to double the Peace Corps, triple the AmeriCorps, and expand VISTA, the USA Freedom Corps, the Senior Corps, and the YouthBuild Program. In addition, he wants to deploy a new Classroom Corps, Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, Veterans Corps, Green Job Corps, and a Homeland Security Corps. Regarding the last one, he has said, “We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.”
Bipartisanship abounds. Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch have filed legislation to increase the number of Americans who participate in volunteer programs from 61 million to 100 million. Using AmeriCorps as a model, the senators propose five new “corps” for volunteers, including international service, disaster relief, green energy, and education and poverty. The bill creates tax breaks for businesses that give workers paid time off and establishes “encore fellowships” for baby boomers seeking alternative retirements.
Volunteering is good, no doubt. However, while unpaid, out-of-work volunteers may help, they cannot solve the critical problems we are facing in education, health care, energy, national security and even unemployment. These complex problems cannot be overcome by armies of untrained volunteers, no matter how well intended. Volunteer service must have real value, both in terms of the actual service performed and the benefit to the provider.
There is a real risk that “volunteerism” will morph into “compulsion.” With joblessness soaring, along with food, fuel and medical costs, foreclosures and evictions, how long will it take our well-fed and over-paid “leaders” in both parties to decide that work (“public service”) should be the price of public assistance? Once we have millions of hungry people out of work, out of benefits, and out of hope, will our “civilian national security force” be deployed to maintain order? At foreclosures and evictions? At food lines? At work gangs?
Another problem with the various volunteer initiatives being bandied about is that none allow voluntary public service as an alternative to the specter of compulsory military service lurking just around the bend.
The Military Draft
Established in 1940, the “Selective Service” created America’s 13-million-man military in World War II, and thereafter continued to conscript young men to staff military vacancies that couldn’t be filled by voluntary enlistments. The military draft ended in 1973 following the Vietnam War, primarily because it had targeted those who, because of a lack of wealth or opportunity, could not obtain college deferments.
All males between the ages of 18 and 25 living in the United States, including undocumented immigrants, are still required by law to “register” for the draft. The Selective Service System is on standby and, if activated by Congress, a lottery will be used to determine the order of call up, and college students will be able to defer service only until the end of their current semester of study (or the end of their academic year for seniors).
The all-volunteer military has not reduced the inequities of service between the rich and poor and between minorities and whites in its ranks. Volunteers of color continue to be recruited into the military at a percentage greater than their representation in the total population. The disproportion increases substantially with income, resulting in a class disparity in the active duty military. The children of wealthy white people have more opportunities and face fewer risks.
As the Iraq War moves toward its sixth year, the percentage of recruits the Department of Defense considers “high quality” has dropped considerably resulting in greater class inequities, even as fewer African Americans are choosing to enlist.
Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) has proposed resumption of the military draft to avoid wars: “There’s no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm’s way.” He advises, “For those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance.”
A large majority of Americans disagree with Congressman Rangel, with 64 percent opposed to a military service draft. However 73 percent would welcome young people volunteering to serve their country, and 43 percent would accept a draft if young people could choose nonmilitary service instead.
Commenting on the draft last September, McCain said, “I might consider it, I don’t think it’s necessary, but I might consider it if you could design a draft where everybody equally could serve.” At a McCain campaign event in August 2008, an audience member said, “If we don’t reenact the draft, I don’t think we’ll have anyone to chase Bin Laden to the gates of hell.” McCain responded, “Ma’am, let me say that I don’t disagree with anything you said ….”
Obama recognizes an “obligation” for military service, “If we are going into war, then all of us go, not just some.” He also wants to see Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) programs returned to college campuses (and presumably military recruiters to be welcomed at high schools).
McCain believes the U.S. must enlarge the size of our armed forces to meet new challenges to our security, “For too long, we have asked too much of too few….” Obama is more specific. He wants to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 soldiers and to add 27,000 marines.
Both candidates want to “take the fight” in Afghanistan into Pakistan.
Given all this, and since military recruitment cannot meet current goals without emptying out the jails, military conscription under either President McCain or President Obama appears inevitable.
The Value of Volunteer Service
Volunteering is as American as apple pie. Writing about his visit to the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “I must say that I have seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare, and I have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another.”
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have volunteered for public service ever since President Kennedy said in 1960, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Civic participation in volunteer activities has continued to increase since the 1970s and today, more than 27 percent of all Americans do something for the public good each year, including volunteering 8.1 million hours of service in 2006.
Among young people, there has been an evolution of a post “me” generation more willing to recognize and act upon a duty to society. Eighty million young people were born into the successor ‘Y’ generation, or ‘Gen Y,’ between 1978 and 1996, and the “millennials” born on the cusp of this century are quickly coming to the age of increased responsibility.
Volunteer activities by young people of all ages continue to increase, by more than 12 percent over the last decade. In just three years, between 2002 and 2005, volunteer activism by college students increased 20 percent. Each year, America’s 60 million young people contribute 2.4 billion hours of public service. This annual commitment is worth $34.3 billion to our society.
Recent surveys confirm that 81 percent of young people have volunteered just during the past year, and that 61 percent of teens through 25 year olds feel a personal responsibility for making a difference in their world. Two out of three college freshmen believe it’s essential or highly important to help others in difficulty.
It’s nice to feel good about oneself, and making a sincere contribution to society undoubtedly improves one’s self image, but what if there was a real quid pro quo (something for something) for our young people who provide valuable, voluntary public service?
A National Youth Service and Education Policy
All of the various volunteer “corps” and “programs” currently being proposed are reactive, rather than proactive, and they all reflect a temporary band-aid approach rather than a thoughtful formulation of long-term policy. Most troubling, it appears these “feel good” and “sound nice” ideas are more concerned with getting votes instead of solving real problems.
Senators Obama and McCain both propose “plans” to help Americans to “serve their country”; however, neither of their plans, nor the legislation introduced by Senators Kennedy and Hatch, is based upon an articulation of a well-conceived and broad-based policy.
Before plans and programs are established and before hoards of volunteers are unleashed across American, we need to have some common understanding and agreement on the policy principles that will guide their endeavors.
A national service policy necessarily begins with an agreement that public service has to be truly voluntary, and the value of its burden has to be balanced by its benefit. Otherwise, the service becomes compulsory, the “volunteers” become slaves, and the product becomes valueless.
As a matter of principle, can we agree that a year of voluntary public service can and should be a rite of passage between high school and college, that such service must provide a valuable benefit to society, and that volunteers must receive an equally valuable benefit?
Policy also requires the establishment of priorities. McCain always starts off talking about military service, and Obama usually talks about community organizing, before getting to military service; however, there has to be a consensus on priorities before we can define policy.
Can we agree as a matter of priority that the education of our children is just as important as national defense for the survival of our nation, our freedoms, and our way of life?
If we come to value public education as much as national defense, shouldn’t we establish a National Education Academy along the lines of the military service academies? With a mission to establish the highest achievable standards for professional education administration, graduates would become officers in a National Education Service. The academy would prepare a cadre of professional managers to inspire and improve the operation of public schools in every school district across the country, now and for future generations.
Those appointed to the Education Academy would agree to serve the same obligatory period following graduation as military officers and would receive the same salaries and benefits as military cadets and junior officers. Graduates should be required to spend at least four years teaching and counseling in low-income public school classrooms following graduation. The Education Academy should also offer advanced degrees in education management and other related subjects for qualified applicants following an appropriate period of service.
Senator Obama has proposed that middle and high school students voluntarily perform 50 hours of public service each year, and he would require college students to perform 100 hours of service each year to quality for an American Opportunity Tax Credit. Assuming that a student has a sufficient taxable income, the “refundable credit” would “ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free … and “will cover two-thirds the cost of tuition at the average public college or university.”
A student would have to earn $30,000 a year and incur an income tax liability of $4,000 (under the current tax code) to receive the full benefit of the Obama tax credit. Given that many students only earn the minimum wage of $6.55 per hour, their full-time annual income of $13,624 per year carries a tax liability of $1,642.
Therefore, a student (assuming he or she has time to go to school) who is working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks out of the year, has to find time to “volunteer” two-and-a-half weeks of free labor each year in order to receive a $16.64 an hour benefit. Granted the pay is an improvement over the minimum wage, however, the student will still have to come up with the balance of $4,358 toward the average $6,000 annual college tuition.
Most students are probably bright enough to calculate the true value of a “tax credit” to them personally, no matter how generous it first appears. However, the value of the incentive cuts both ways. What are students going to be actually doing to earn the $16.64 to $40 per hour tax credit? If we are trying to solve serious education, health care, energy, or national security problems, wouldn’t it be wiser to use the same money to employ trained experts who are out of work? Or, if students are performing less skilled jobs, won’t we be overpaying them?
Wouldn’t we be better off in the long run if we simply provide a free four-year college education for all young volunteers who successfully complete a year of valuable unpaid public service at age 18, when they become adults? Students who want to participate in the public service program could voluntarily register with the Education Service at age 16 to begin planning their public service to ensure it provides the maximum value to our society and to the student.
The benefit of public service could be greatly enhanced if college graduates volunteer to contribute a second full year of valuable unpaid public service before entering the full-time work force. Having shared the benefit of their education and specialized knowledge, shouldn’t they be entitled to receive free public education through a master’s degree?
A valuable National Youth Service Educational Program would be a great leveler, providing disadvantaged young people with the opportunity to receive the education they need to compete in the job market and to improve the standard of living for themselves and their families.
College is not the answer for all students. Some may choose to earn an immediate salary instead of volunteering for a year; however, given the complexities of the modern world we live in (and the large number of unemployed young people), shouldn’t we also agree, as a matter of priority, that the standard free public education should be expanded nationally to include a two-year academic or vocational college degree for all students?
The public service rendered by young people who volunteer for the military should receive equal recognition for its value to society. They too should earn the opportunity to obtain a college degree in return for their dedication and sacrifice.
Imagine the tremendous leap forward American society will make into the future with a well-educated, well-adjusted, and socially-committed population. It’s all a matter of priorities, policies, planning, programs and commitment. The valuable prize is freedom. The price is worthy service.
William John Cox is a retired supervising prosecutor for the State Bar of California. As a police officer he wrote the Policy Manual of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Role of the Police in America for a national advisory commission. Acting as a public interest, pro bono, attorney, he filed a class action lawsuit in 1979 on behalf of every citizen of the United States petitioning the Supreme Court to order the other two branches of the federal government to conduct a National Policy Referendum; he investigated and successfully sued a group of radical right-wing organizations in 1981 that denied the Holocaust; and he arranged in 1991 for publication of the suppressed Dead Sea Scrolls. His book, You’re Not Stupid! Get the Truth: A Brief on the Bush Presidency is reviewed at http://www.yourenotstupid.com, and he is currently working on a fact-based fictional political philosophy. His articles are collected at http://www.thevoters.org, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.