We Need Universal National Service


A federal judge has just ruled that it’s unconstitutional to require only young men to register for selective service. And he’s right. It *is* gender discrimination.

(Although I find it interesting that all of a sudden, woman are “equal” when it comes to sharing an unpleasant responsibility previously reserved for men. We don’t merit equal of pay or equal rights, nor do men have to share equally in our unpleasant responsibilities like house work, birth control, and child care. But I digress.)

I think we should go bigger, though. The draft ended more than 46 years ago, yet millions of young men have still – and are still – registered for it on their 18th birthdays.

So yes, every citizen should be required to register on her or his 18th birthday: register for national service AND when you register for national service, you are automatically registered to vote.

And I do mean national service. Not “someday if there is a war, I might get called up.” But “I will be serving my country for two years. It just remains to be seen how.”

Every citizen should be required to give the country two years of service. It could be – but doesn’t have to be – military, and you can’t buy your way out.

You would owe your two years when you’ve completed your formal schooling, whether that’s high school, college, grad school, professional school – whatever. You could choose to go into one of the branches of the military if you like, but you could also choose something WPA-like, planting trees, picking up trash in national parks, or other kinds of manual labor.

Nonprofit groups could register to participate in the program, so you could do your two years at an approved nonprofit, working at a local homeless shelter, food bank, immigrant services group, or soup kitchen.

Arts organizations could register to participate in the program, so you could do your two years creating public art works, supporting a community theater group, or helping teach and encourage the next generation of artists.

Local governments could register to participate in the program, so you could do your two years helping maintain local parks, working in a city agency and learning how to, for instance, process permit paperwork and inspect the work when it’s completed, or issue business licenses.

If you did your two years after completing more advanced schooling, your service could be related to your degree: two years helping low-income people with tax prep if you study accounting, two years providing medical care in a rural area if you’re a doctor, two years as a public defender if you’re a lawyer, two years working on public infrastructure projects if you’re an engineer, etc.

You could even choose to extend your service for another year and have some of your student loans forgiven in exchange.

Us folks who are older than 18 wouldn’t be exempt, either. Since we missed the “immediately post-education” window, we’d owe our two years in our first two years of retirement. Those who are already retired would owe it NOW.  Even the elderly can hold and soothe babies born addicted to drugs in the NICU or read to kids at the local elementary school.

You would get paid, although, as Corporation for National and Community Service and Teach for America participants can attest, not a lot, but enough to get by.

The universal national service program could incorporate a Fresh Air Fund/Smog Air Fund component, where young people who haven’t put down roots yet would be encouraged to work in a community that’s geographically and demographically dissimilar to the one in which they were raised, perhaps with some additional incentives (like a housing allowance). Rural young people would get to experience the excitement and diversity of the big city, and urban young people would get to experience the peace and quiet and open spaces of the country.

A universal national service program would have all sorts of positive effects. Communities would reap direct benefits. Young people would acquire practical job skills. It would reduce isolation and depression in older folks. It would strengthen the ties that bind us and help us see each other as fellow citizens, not scary Others. It would show young people, rural and urban, other ways of being and living. It would instill a service mindset in young people, while their adult identities are still being formed. I’m not saying it would fix everything, but I think it would help a lot of things.

Image from Wikipedia.

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6 responses to “We Need Universal National Service

  1. Why only include as a public defender after law school? Why not also include working as a prosecutor?

  2. This is amazing idea. But I wonder, what would people live on while they are doing their two years of service? “Enough to get by” is different for young folks fresh out of school and retirement-age people (who may not actually be retired) with health expenses and mortgages. My personal bias is showing, I know…

  3. People in my line of work (science research) “retire” when we are too worn out to keep working. I don’t imagine that’s rare. You will not get much out of us by stacking two years of required public service on top of that: for a significant number of people you’ll be looking at declining health and an expensive need for support just to be able to participate. Also, are you genuinely going to jail elderly people because they won’t work? I think this part needs to be rethought. I am 55 and would be willing to serve in this way, but I would NOT be willing to promise to do so when I’m 75 and may be in failing health.

  4. Yep, ‘national service, as in ‘serving your nation. 🙂

  5. This has always been a long held viewpoint of mine. I find it surprisingly unpopular and that leaves me confused. I did my service in the Army, but I can think of many non-military ways to serve. I tend to think fresh out of high school would be an excellent way to open some privileged eyes, for instance!

  6. As long as they are getting paid, I’m for it. If it’s “enough to get by” sign me up right now, because I’m failing on that point even with 2 jobs.

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