Sunday, October 3, 2010

In Support of National Service

 I was watching the news the other day, and there was a story about the pending expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. There has been considerable consternation inside the beltway as to whether they should be made permanent, allowed to expire for everyone, or allowed to expire for those making over $250,000 per year. This post is not intended to address that issue, but for the record, I am in favor of the last option.

What got my attention was a remark made by a typical outer-ring suburban soccer mom, who was whining that if the upper-income tax cuts expired her family wouldn’t be able to take their planned vacation in South America.

Well, boo hoo. Her complaint stuck with me all day, on many levels, including the fact that her family would be using a tax credit and spending it outside the United States. Then it occurred to me, neither this woman nor her family had probably ever experienced real poverty, had never known true struggle, and had been insulated for their entire lives.

I grew up in a solidly middle-class family – not poor, but far from rich. My parents were reasonably thrifty: drove used cars, and left the dining room unfurnished – all so they could live in an area with an excellent school system. I didn’t know material struggle until I finished high school and had to start earning my own way – and even then, jobs came easily to me in the boom years of the 1980s.

But in the summer of 1990, in the midst of the first Bush recession, I was unemployed. Living from check to check on unemployment, which I felt ashamed to accept, I was demoralized by my struggle to find work. The low point for me came in July: I was a week behind on my rent and was only able to stay in my apartment through the good graces of my landlord (he probably reasoned that it would cost him more to find a new tenant as to let me run a week behind on my rent); the refrigerator and cupboards were bare with the exceptions of an old box of penne pasta and a bottle of Thousand Island dressing. I was hungry, and as I ate the cooked pasta covered in dressing – slowly to make it last – I realized I was probably still better off than half the people on the planet. I had a warm bed to sleep in; I had electricity, books, television, and music. And I had another unemployment check coming the next day, which would go toward my rent and the cheapest food I could find.

Going back to the soccer mom: It’s probably too late to save the parents’ minds, I thought. But what about their children? And my thoughts returned to something I have contemplated for several years: National Youth Service.

It is my belief that every able bodied person between the ages of 18-25 should be required to perform one year of National Service. It could be in the Coast Guard or National Guard (standard military service for only one year would not be practical), or working in inner cities, helping the elderly, or getting back to nature in a revived Civilian Conservation Corps. For their work, young people would get minimal pay, food, a dormitory-style place to stay, and college credits. Not only could much needed work be done to better the country, but young people could better themselves and meet their peers from all walks of life. No mainstream American politician of either the left or right supports this idea, but I do.

National Service is a staple of young adulthood in many advanced countries. Several years ago, I met a young man from Germany who was performing his service by helping the elderly in Cleveland paint homes – later he went to New Orleans to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina. How interesting that American generosity, such as after the Haitian earthquake or the mine disaster in Chile, is reported in our media – but people from other countries helping over here never makes the news.

America has dabbled in National Youth Service before, most recently with AmeriCorps – which started under President Clinton. But aside from the emergency programs during the Great Depression, it has never been wholeheartedly embraced by either the government or the populace. This may be, in part, due to fears of National Service devolving into a Draft. Or it merely may be that the Congress is unwilling to expend the money necessary – although that hasn’t stopped them from funding trillion dollar wars of choice. But the time has come to define citizenship as more than just paying taxes. Citizenship means that all must “ask what you can do for your country” and then act accordingly.

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