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Where I Stand Universal national service — now

March 24, 2019

I am concerned that President Trump’s 2020 budget proposes deep cuts to The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Youth Build, at a time when 63 percent of adults say they support a system of one year of national military or civilian service for all young Americans.

From the days of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, to JFK’s Peace Corps, LBJ’s Head Start, and President Clinton’s AmeriCorps, there has been an awareness that some type of national service program could solve many of our social and political ills.

In February the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service, presented an interim report to the President, Congress and the American people, outlining its efforts to “consider methods to increase participation in service….”

We are in troubled times. America no longer warrants the international respect that we have always received. We have lost our belief in the American idea. We continue to increase economic and social inequality. Many of us are feeling disenfranchised by capitalism, and are actually leaning toward socialism as a viable form of government.

We can start to address these challenges with a universal national service program, either mandatory as in the Step Forward America program about which I have written, or voluntary as proposed by Service Year Alliance.

In “Step Forward America!” I propose a traditional two-year conscription in which everyone on reaching their 18th birthday is eligible.

Service starts with basic training, and continues through an educational component heavy on civics and issues current at the time, for example media literacy, immigration and health care. The enrollee would then elect either military or civilian service. Skills training specific to the task would follow, and then on to the assignment for the remainder of the tour.

Civilian service would include a variety of assignments here and abroad including, for example, disaster recovery, serving the sick and homeless, and education support in disadvantaged communities.

Service Year Alliance, seeing similar needs, proposes one year of voluntary military, social or public service in which “every young adult, regardless of background, would be asked to contribute to the future of America in exchange possibly for scholarships, student loan forgiveness, college credit or workplace credentials.” With these incentives, and potential disincentives, such as ineligibility for certain government benefits for those who do not participate, the goal of a truly universal program would be within reach without making it mandatory.

And Service Year Alliance is currently moving ahead at a rapid pace to make universal national service a reality.

The return on this investment will include a better educated, motivated and skilled youth to go on to higher education, or the work force. And some of our most marginalized youth will be directed away from antisocial behaviors.

We will all accept responsibility for our political and military actions, not just leave it to the 1 percent who now do the heavy lifting fighting our endless wars. Most importantly, we will create a better-informed electorate that, through training, living and working together, will be exposed to, and learn to tolerate, the opinions of others from all backgrounds, and will appreciate the need for compromise at all levels of government, thereby forcing our elected officials to act and to govern accordingly.

Universal national service will surely be an issue in the 2020 elections. Stay tuned to the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service and to Service Year Alliance, and, if you agree with me that the time has come to make this great dream a reality, let your elected officials know.

Ted Hollander is a long time resident of Sherman, the author of “Step Forward America! - A Case for a National Service Program,” and a supporter of Service Year Alliance.