The United States has a history of big, bold initiatives. Americans as individuals, however, have largely forgotten them. The New Deal is barely taught in school, most students do not understand why the United States fought World War II, and the Apollo space program might be remembered as an okay Tom Hanks film. Yet, big challenges and ideas have been at the core of American exceptionalism—itself a barely-remembered concept—since the founding of the Republic.
Today, in the shadow of a devastating pandemic and what might have been the most divisive election in the nation’s history, we are again faced with very serious challenges. But unlike most of the earlier challenges—threats to our freedom, economic hardships, natural disasters—we do not see ourselves as “one nation under God.” We are divided, mistrustful, angry, and probably far more fearful than we want to admit.
The Biden administration holds hope for many, but is distrusted by almost as many—not a particularly encouraging picture. Pundits talk about the need for political bipartisanship, but that requires politicians to actually cross the aisle and compromise. The rhetoric trumps the action. Even initiatives such as rebuilding crumbling U.S. infrastructure—that supposedly enjoy nearly universal support—cannot gain traction.
Is there anything that can break the logjam? Optimists believe that those currently in positions of political power will find compromise on the margins—probably starting with infrastructure. But on bigger issues such as health care? Not likely anytime soon.
Our best hope for a return to normalcy—to listening, to reason, to compromise—might be with the next generation. But what can we do to increase the chances that people will be tolerant of opposing viewpoints, different perspectives, unconventional ideas?
One answer—often repeated but rarely acted on—is to promote shared experiences. There is talk about having a “national dialogue” about important, difficult subjects—race relations being the most commonly heard. But we don’t talk to people outside our families and small circles of friends. We don’t seek out people in different socioeconomic classes, nor are we likely to invite them in.
Unless we have to.
National Service in the United States
We know—from more than 100 years of experience—that the best way to get people from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives to interact is through compulsory service. Several times in our nation’s history we have seen the military draft bring people together in common cause. People who otherwise would rarely, if ever, have contact have had to work together, listen to one another, help each other to achieve a common objective. They might not have liked each other, but they served together, shared experiences, and were exposed to ideas, perspectives, biases, language, food, places, tasks that they would never have otherwise seen. And we became a better nation because of it.
The military draft is not coming back. Nor should we abandon the very successful all-volunteer military. But we can use the model to do something bigger and almost as important: We can use mandatory national service to rebuild the nation.
For more than 60 years we have seen effective voluntary programs: The Peace Corps of the 1960s was followed by AmeriCorps in the 1990s. The Peace Corps has just 7,334 volunteers annually, and only 240,000 since its inception. AmeriCorps involves about 75,000 young people annually, and slightly more than 180,000 join the military every year. That is more than 260,000 young people volunteering, a tiny percentage of those in the age cohort: there are about 4.2 million people in each one-year group, or about 25 million in the 18–22 cohort. So, bravo and thanks to those young people who choose to volunteer, but they represent 1 percent of their peers. Voluntary service is nice and noble, but it is not actually bringing most people together.
The expansion of national service is not a new subject. Congressional leaders and major think-tanks have repeatedly proposed models of universal service. The importance and benefit of service is not disputed and is perhaps accepted now more than ever. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senator Chris Coons (D-CT) introduced an expansion of national service programs to respond and recover from the current crisis. This bill, the bipartisan CORPS Act, points to national service as a path to address urgent community needs—public health, hunger, education, conservation, behavioral health. And, importantly, the bill highlights national service as an opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of meaningful employment opportunities.
The Aspen Institute, Service Year Alliance, and Brookings Institution all have bolstered this push for voluntary, but hopefully universal, service with compelling data that illustrates the ways in which an expanded ecosystem of service would benefit the United States, both as a nation and as individuals. However convincing the evidence may be, proposals for voluntary programs are just not enough. Not enough young people choose to volunteer.
Make Service Mandatory
Leaders and thinkers from across the political spectrum have proposed universal service as a means of uniting our country through shared experience. Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, former head of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, has been advocating for expanded service opportunities and chairing the Service Year Alliance at the Aspen Institute. National service has been the subject of op-eds in publications as diverse as The New York Times and The Hill. Times opinion writer David Brooks’ “We Need National Service. Now” was among his most popular columns; and my pieces in The Hill generated more “shares” than any article I have ever written. And, perhaps as a testament to its appeal to the younger generation, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg advocated for universal service in his presidential campaign.
Surveys reveal there is strong support among most segments of the U.S. population for a program requiring all young people to serve a year or two in some service capacity. One recent poll conducted just after the 2020 election found that 80 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 22 support an 18-month program of mandatory national service. And, significantly, 88 percent of their parents support it too.
There also is broad agreement that military service should remain voluntary—those who wish to carry a gun and put themselves in harm’s way would have that option. But service—whether as a teacher’s assistant, a nurse’s aide, clearing forests, or rebuilding roads—would be mandatory. Everyone would serve, with no exemptions or favoritism in assignments. As one pundit put it: everyone would be equally unhappy with their task.
Op-eds, polling, congressional initiatives, and think-tank proposals all reflect the growing demand for a national conversation on the topic. Ask Americans whether they favor mandatory national service, and most will say, “It depends on the details.” There are dozens of questions, options, iterations, combinations. Conversations must start somewhere; and this is my proposed starting point:
This design is built on ten questions. By answering each, providing some context, and a rationale for the recommended option, we have the framework for a plan. The key questions are:
1. Who would serve?
3. For how long?
4. What would people be doing?
5. Where would people serve?
6. Would people have any choice about what work they did?
7. Would people get paid?
8. What if someone did not serve or successfully complete service?
9. What will this cost?
10. Who is going to oversee this program?
Some answers follow.
Who Would Serve?
The simple answer is everyone. There would be no exemptions and very few deferments. The rich could not buy their way out. There would be no student deferments—as there were during the Vietnam draft era—and very few medical exemptions. What is not so simple is how to deal with cases on the margins. For example, we would certainly make reasonable accommodations for the disabled; but what would qualify as severely disabled and trigger an exemption? And who would make that determination?
Some categories of people—for example, the very best athletes whose peak performance years typically correspond to their early 20s (Tom Brady notwithstanding)—might require a bit of flexibility in the types of jobs they perform. The rule should be: no special treatment. We are not talking about five years of commitment; that would deprive them of their livelihood during their prime years. I am proposing—spoiler alert—just 18 months. Young people—even those with special talents— will be asked to make small sacrifices for the common good.
When Would People Serve?
Most countries that have mandatory national service programs require everyone to begin their service at a set time—either in the year of their 18th birthday, or immediately after graduating from high school. At first glance, that seems like a pretty reasonable way to structure an American program. But it may not be the best way.
An alternative would be to require registration before one’s 18th birthday, and then have a more flexible opt-in start date at any time before a person’s 22nd birthday. There are reasonably plausible rationales for this approach.
The first is flexibility. Not everyone will be doing the same service job. Some people may join the military—which would remain a completely voluntary “branch” of the mandatory program. And the military’s training pipeline would benefit from a bit of flexibility. Second, some people would benefit from serving when they are at the younger end of the age range while others might do better with a year or two of college (or work experience) under their belts. And having some people who are a bit older—and presumably more mature—could be a good thing.
But, again, the operative principle is that everyone is going to serve, and there can be a bit of flexibility for the common good.
How Long Will People Serve?
I propose 18 months. Why 18 months? Because it is longer than a year and less than two years—the two other most commonly suggested time commitments.
Compulsory service models generally reflect this timeline. Some of the most demanding countries, such as Israel, require several years of service. The Israeli Defense Force requires a 30-month obligation for men. Others, such as France, require just one month of service for high school students during the summer. But most countries, such as Finland, Norway, and Singapore, require service in the one- to two-year range.
Eighteen months gives people time to learn their jobs and make substantive contributions doing them. It is long enough to break bad (or nonexistent) work habits and develop new routines and skills. Yet, it is not so long to be so disruptive to people’s educational or professional plans.
What Would People Be Doing?
Should people be cleaning neighborhoods, caring for the elderly, assisting in pre-k classrooms, building low-income housing or . . . fill in the blank? What is not mentioned in the above—and in any anticipated list of priorities—is military service. It is a fundamental precept that service in the military should continue to be voluntary and would, of course, constitute one of the options available for satisfying a national service commitment.
AmeriCorps already has a model of service priorities in the United States. They fall into six priority areas: disaster services, economic opportunity, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures, and veterans and military families. In the most recent year, AmeriCorps volunteers focused their efforts heavily on the COVID-19 response. Volunteers ran contact tracing, staffed testing sites, and worked in food banks. The climate crisis has been another focus of AmeriCorps service in the recent years. Members work in environmental conservation. They respond to and help prepare for natural disasters.
America’s needs are always evolving and priorities are often forced to shift. As we decide what issues are most pressing—and where national service participants should be assigned—AmeriCorps’ existing model can serve as a framework to place young people in service roles around the country
Where Would People Serve?
For the most part, it would be better for people to work as far away from their hometowns as possible; and in environments different from their neighborhoods. People from large cities would benefit from working in rural areas. Kids who have never (or rarely) set foot in big cities would benefit from being assigned to jobs in the inner city.
The rationale for suggesting this non-comfort-zone approach is simple: Participants would be better off being exposed to people and environments unlike their own. If an important objective of the program is to give people an opportunity to meet, work with, and hopefully understand people different from themselves—and create the basis for future common ground—people need to get out of their comfort zones. That means physically, emotionally, socially, and geographically.
Would People Have a Choice about What Work They Did?
The answer to this question should be yes, but with the realistic expectation that most people will not get the job they request. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made—and a temptation to say—that jobs should be randomly assigned. There would be less gaming of the system.
Men who opt for civil service in Switzerland organize their own assignments. Once a citizen’s application for civil service is approved, conscripts apply to positions that interest them, and they organize the terms of service with their host organization or institution.
AmeriCorps is similar. In the application process, people identify specific programs, positions, and locations they are interested in. (They do not always get their choice.) Could this level of choice be maintained in a scaled and mandatory version of the system? It seems unlikely.
Would People Get Paid?
Yes, people would receive a subsistence allowance, in addition to room and board. But it should not even approach minimum wage. In addition, a small payment of $100 per week should be put aside into a mandatory, untouchable savings account that would become available to the participant on completion of service. (That amount saved would yield $10,000.)
In its present form, AmeriCorps offers a small allowance and benefits to all who serve. Members are paid a living allowance of approximately $13.00 per day and are paid biweekly a sum of $181.44. Other benefits include housing, meals, limited health care benefits, childcare options, and uniforms. On successful completion of service, AmeriCorps members also are eligible for an education award of $4,725. This award is intended to pay for qualified school expenses or to repay qualified student loans.
What if Someone Did Not Serve or Successfully Complete Service?
There should be consequences for failing to serve or successfully complete service. When the basic plan was surveyed in the fall of 2020, the “stick” that was suggested for failing to serve was the person would be ineligible for any federal student loan or mortgage guarantee program. Since then, several people have commented that such punishment would only really impact less affluent people. Kids from rich families are far less dependent on government loan programs.
Consequently, the consequences would be expanded to include ineligibility to attend any college or university that receives federal funds.
What Will this Cost?
A rough, “back of the envelope” calculation of the cost of an 18-month program in which everyone participates; are paid a small $100 per week allowance and an additional $100 per week goes into a savings account; live in college-like dormitories and eat college-quality food; and receive health care is approximately $133 billion annually.
$132 billion is a lot of money. But, it is less than one-fifth the cost of annual military spending. The Department of Agriculture is the closest in size, spending $129 billion in fiscal year 2021. The 2021 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs is $235 billion, and the budget is $60 billion for the Department of Homeland Security.
Who Oversees this Program?
The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), an independent government agency, currently oversees AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other civilian service programs in the United States. I propose CNCS take on responsibility for this new mandatory program as well, because it already has relationships with the various state service commissions that implement AmeriCorps programs in communities across the country; and has relationships with the local agencies, and nonprofits that oversee the various AmeriCorps projects.
That is my outline of a national service program. Now it needs to be fleshed-out, debated, refined, and argued about some more. It is a starting point, not the finished design. Will it be enacted? That is for the American people to decide.