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As he concluded his first 100 days in office, President Barack Obama could easily claim significant victories in domestic policy, demonstrate a notable shift in our foreign affairs, and assume credit for a remarkable shift in the politics of this country in a more progressive and pragmatic direction.
But the expansion of national service — a policy he carried within his platform for the duration of the campaign — cannot be unequivocally hailed as a success.
The bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch was signed on April 21 to little fanfare, having overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate with 275-149 and 79-19 margins, respectively, after hardly any debate at all. No toothless or symbolic law, it more than tripled the size of AmeriCorps from its current 75,000 to 250,000 by fiscal year 2017. It also created additional public-private partnerships through a “Social Innovation Fund.” For low-income students considering federal aid, it tied such awards to a record of community service.
On face, there are any number of reasons why young progressives should be excited about this policy. The first two are fairly obvious: economic stimulus works best when it is given to those with a high propensity to spend, and, come graduation in only a few weeks, entry-level jobs will in short supply for college graduates and non-graduates alike. The loss of one or two years of work in their early 20s may not represent much of a financial loss to that generation, but it does take away the first critical years in which the foundations of a career are built. While national service is not the long-term solution to spiraling unemployment, it will grant such youth a reprieve while the economy recovers.
But the first pitfall of non-military national service is and has always been its tendency to become a catch-all for low-wage labor – and the particular conflict of interest it tends to engender in the groups that benefit. When AmeriCorps “volunteers” are placed in internships in government departments, essentially replacing highter-paid administrative assistants, or when they are given to politicized community groups, whether religious or secular, right-wing or left, the distinction between selfless volunteerism and political patronage begins to blur.
And in its current form, perfectly voluntary and hardly competitive, this type of national service should make progressives uncomfortable for the same reason that our volunteer army already does. The lessons of Vietnam and Iraq have shown us that when the military dominated by the poor and powerless, no matter whether by a biased draft or because of financial incentives, the country is more likely to go to war.
A national service dominated by the poor may well cause little harm except to its volunteers. But AmeriCorps’ emphasis on subsidies and work-replacement — rather than, for example, training and prestige — will only prevent national service from becoming a national endeavor. Can AmeriCorps rival Teach for America in its ability to claim talent and inspire sacrifice? What in particular about low-wage labor makes it a form of service we should encourage, especially if it takes away living-wage jobs?
Fundamentally, if we truly believe in national service as a civic virtue, only requiring it — through law, or through the social pressure of custom — will give it a national character. This holds true of military service – in a universal draft – and of civilian service, in the obligation to pay taxes and serve of juries and the expectation that citizens will vote.
This position, of course, has little traction in the mainstream of either political party. But it seems futile to speak of a national service, a collective sacrifice, a war against poverty, disease, and social malaise, when the front lines are manned by a mercenary army.
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