This guest post is by Curtis Valentine, a Term Member with the Council on Foreign Relations and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (South Africa 2001-2003)
The continuous debates over domestic issues like immigration, education, the economy, and healthcare reveal what most of us already know: America is divided politically and economically. The results of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections suggest that most of us live amongst like-minded individuals. The disparity in income in America is among the highest of any developed country. A program of mandatory national service could help to bridge those divides, build greater unity, while putting millions of young people to work on the growing number of domestic challenges that compromise our economic and military competitiveness around the world.
The era that combat veterans like my father grew up in seem distant to many of us today. During the 1960s and 1970s compulsory military service had the potential to blur racial, political, and economic lines. Today, non-military service institutions are extremely class-divided. Over time, non-military service has become synonymous with wealth. For example, Americans who join Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and Teach For America (TFA), are overwhelming middle income or wealthier, and many are chosen from American’s most selective schools.
The notion of compulsory service is not foreign to present day Americans. In some high schools and colleges across the country, students are required to perform a number of community service hours as a condition for graduation. An expansion of mandatory service would include either a full-time assignment in the spirit of the Peace Corps or part-time assignment like a community service project.
In 2008, then President-elect Barack Obama called for a plan to require fifty hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year. The plan was later removed from his official website. In 2003, Congressmen Charles Rangel and John Conyers, and Senator Fritz Hollings introduced the Universal National Service Act. In a response to what his office saw as an overrepresentation of poor and minority Americans in the military during the Iraq War, Congressman Rangel introduced the bill to highlight the impact of the war on all Americans. Rangel commented that the bill was introduced “to make it clear that if there were a war, there would be more equitable representation of people making sacrifices.” The legislation would have required all Americans to serve for two years in one of a variety of capacities, including military time, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, TFA, or local initiatives.
Opponents of compulsory service argue that this would be an intrusion by government in what has traditionally been a voluntary act. Others argue that requiring service or compensating for service takes away the spirit of the act. Interestingly enough, Peace Corps, TFA, AmeriCorps, and the military are all considered service institutions yet all of them compensate their volunteers monetarily, with both preferential government hiring post-service and graduate school funding support. In the case of part-time compulsory service, the notion of offering tax breaks for donating time – in the spirit of the tax breaks for donating goods – could reduce the financial burden incurred. Even supporters of compulsory service would contend that penalties, such as a fine for not serving, would only favor wealthy Americans with the means of paying it.
The goal of any program is to have impact. A program of compulsory service would do best to use the Peace Corps model of embedding volunteers in the communities they serve. Locating volunteers from other parts of the country would create the cultural exchange needed to fully earn the respect of those the volunteer would be serving. The program would also promote skills transfer and capacity building for sustainability. This movement is a global one; other countries in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean are considering expanding or creating compulsory service projects for their young population ages 15-29 as well. In Ghana, the government is expanding and re-evaluating their current National Service program to ensure volunteers are well placed and well resourced. In Barbados, the government is creating a new National Youth Service program to address the need for Bajan youth to work with each other for the common good. Though many European countries like France and Germany have ended mandatory military service, other countries like Austria, Denmark, Finland, and Greece continue to require male citizens perform military service.
Compulsory service is bold, but the absence of a bold solution will only ignore growing social seclusion. Without a program like compulsory service, Americans will continue to struggle with the idea that we are inextricably linked. Barring a bold solution from national leaders, America will continue to move forward without a long term plan to rebuild communities and create the social cohesion and national unity that is critical to U.S. national security.