Hey you! Do you want to explore the world? Do you want to do interesting things with interesting people? Do you want to get paid to do it? I’d like to tell you how you can, all while helping out your fellow Americans. Our country faces many problems, but today, I would like to focus on just three of them. The first is polarization. We are more divided than we have been in recent memory, and this polarization seems to spread to a new sector of our society every day. The second is physical infrastructure. Our roads are covered with potholes, many of our public housing developments are in states of disrepair and the majesty of our national parks is obscured by decaying infrastructure. Finally, our young people are more aimless than they have been in recent history. There is a solution to all of these things, and it is a robust national service program. It is time that we, as a country, invest in one year of service for 18-year-olds to do work that needs to be done, cut down polarization and help millions of young people find their ways in life.
What do I mean by a national service? I mean enlisting every 18-year-old and sending them off to work in a different part of the country for a year. Filling potholes in Kentucky, giving vaccines in New York or killing invasive snakes in Florida. These are just a few of the things they will be doing, each new public servant will be given a stipend of around $500 a month, as well as food and housing to go along with it. I, along with many before me, propose that every person who graduates high school should be expected to serve, barring any major exceptions such as health problems or childcare responsibilities.
Our country is more divided now than it has been in recent history. A smaller and smaller number of Americans can say they have people close to them with differing political views. Exposing young Americans to people with different views will do good for developing a more tolerant, less polarized society. We saw a similar effect occur when the military was desegregated in 1948. Units that were desegregated showed more tolerant behavior towards those different from themselves, and unit performance improved. For many historical reasons, we are a politically polarized country. Democrats and Republicans shop at different stores and work different jobs. We need a program to funnel young people together, even if only for 12 months, so that the next generation of Americans with different social identities can recognize each other’s shared humanity.
We live in a time with sky-high rates of teen depression. Many young people are aimless, often self-medicating the empty feeling they experience with drugs and alcohol. A national service would allow young people to connect with their labor in a way not possible throughout schooling. It allows them to socialize with other young people while also affirming their commitment to making a better world for their neighbors. Research has demonstrated that service for others is rewarding both because of the immediate feel-good effects of doing something good, but also because of the beneficial social relationships that people gain through it.
Ignoring the benefits to the conscripts, our country still has a lot of work to do. Take infrastructure for example. The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that 43% of our nation’s roads are in either poor or mediocre condition. Our national parks are also in states of disrepair, with billions of dollars of repairs needed to get them up to snuff. Rivers are polluted, the unhoused are suffering and forest fires are rampant. There is so much good that approximately 3.5 million civil service foot soldiers could do for a nation with problems like ours. A model for this sort of program can be found in the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. The CCC did some of the most important work of the 20th century, and it is our duty to make sure that their work does not go to waste by allowing our country to wallow in disrepair.
Some critics cite this kind of program’s financial cost. But the cost of this program, even if it reaches the $75 billion mark, will be worth it several times over. It doesn’t just benefit the participants; it also enhances the ability of the federal government to get things done. We absolutely can expect that the government will be able to utilize these millions of young people doing their national service to all areas of the government. For example, the price of running the CDC will go down because the custodian will be someone doing their national service, or the price of getting seniors their social security payments will fall because the front desk assistant at the social security office will be someone serving their country. This hopefully wouldn’t displace current, often unionized, government workers, but instead, would add on to the capacity of the government to do good.
I support a national service because we have millions of unfulfilled young people and millions of potholes to fill, trees to plant and homeless shelters to build. The cost is negligible compared to the desperate need. Many other developed nations have an expectation of service, like South Korea and Sweden, but unlike them, we wouldn’t require service in the armed forces. I know that I would have loved a government-mandated gap year between high school and college, and I imagine many of my peers would have as well. Even the most put-together young people need time to breathe, decompress and evaluate. And what better way to do it than building paths on a beautiful Montana mountainside with Americans of all colors, creeds and abilities.
Julian Barnard is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.