COLUMN: The case for forming a National Service Bureau

Mandatory national service unites young people of different backgrounds through a common experience.

Illustration credit: Diane Huang

Mandatory national service unites young people of different backgrounds through a common experience.

Many young Americans share a certain reverence for the achievements of our grandparents and great-grandparents. It’s nearly impossible to visit the Greatest Generation exhibit at the Minnesota History Museum or to read Tom Brokaw’s eponymous work without being overtaken by the bravery, unity, and selflessness of the men and women who weathered the Depression, won World War II, and provided their children some of the most prosperous decades in our nation’s history.

There is a clear contrast between the collective spirit that defined the Greatest Generation and our own sorry state of social and political stratification. Some of this can be ascribed over-idealization of the past—we should not forget, for instance, that the army that liberated Western Europe was segregated. But it’s hard to escape the sense that we have collectively lost something since then, a sort of un-sarcastic patriotism and civic stewardship that provided impetus for real national advancement.

A fine way to recapture and practically harness this spirit would be forming a federal National Service Bureau, which would provide financial incentives for young people to dedicate a year or more to either domestic or military service. A 2007 proposal by Time Magazine Managing Editor Richard Stengel explains how such a program could be made to work.

By creating a small investment fund for every American at birth, Stengel explains, the government could offer a universal $19,000 incentive for participants, at the cost of only $20 billion a year—just 0.05% of the 2013 federal budget. Potential sectors of service could include education, health care, environmental protection, infrastructure development, and disaster response.

Such a program could help college graduates gain immediate work experience while putting their expertise to public use, as well as fostering the development of a skilled labor force. Society at large would gain substantially from the labor output such a program would provide. A 2013 collaborative study by the Aspen Institute and Columbia University Teacher’s College examines existing federally subsidized volunteer programs like AmeriCorps, the National Guard, and Teach for America. The authors found that the combined fiscal, infrastructural, and human capital benefits of such programs recoup the public’s investment 3.5 times over.

In less dry terms, tutoring services and after-school activities provided by volunteers could significantly improve inner-city high school graduation rates. Infrastructural workers could restore the country’s deteriorating highways and bridges, rehabilitate polluted areas, and build environmentally-friendly housing developments and public facilities. Law school graduates could work on a pro-bono basis for disadvantaged clients. Clearly, such measures would address social inequality while helping the economy from the bottom up.

But there would be another impact, less tangible perhaps, but no less important. National service work would constitute a shared experience, a shared sacrifice even, for hard-working young people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Future doctors and investment bankers could work alongside future carpenters and kindergarten teachers, all dedicating their skills and passion to a great collective national undertaking. While providing an early professional opportunity for participants, national service could also help train a more scrupulous and generous generation of American citizens. So let’s get to work, together.