9/11/2001: The Case for Universal Service

Americans are a generous people. The attacks of September 11 produced an outpouring of donations to help families of the victims. Americans took pride in the heroism of public servants—firefighters, the police, FBI agents, and men and women in the military—who responded to the call of duty. It was also widely felt that September 11 would change the lives of many young Americans, who not only would have the images of the attacks seared into their memories, but also would pursue careers in public service or the “helping” professions.

Time will tell whether those initial impulses toward helping others will last. But time alone won’t determine the outcome. Public policy can and will have an impact. If Americans want more of their children to pursue service careers or at least devote time to activities that help and support others, whether in the public or private sector, it will certainly help if government encourages or provides opportunities for such service. The same is true for adults wishing to serve in some capacity, as many apparently were willing to do in the weeks following September 11.

President Bush, for one, has recognized the role of public policy by supporting a much-expanded voluntary national service program. In his fiscal year 2003 budget, he called for the creation of the USA Freedom Corps, which would combine and expand the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps programs and add a new Senior Corps as well as a volunteer program for college students. Bush proposed increasing the funding of all national service programs by nearly $300 million and eventually placing more than 2 million Americans a year in some kind of formal national service (75,000 in full-time AmeriCorps programs). He also called on Americans to give two years over the course of their lives to service.

The Bush proposals tap into two strong American traditions—a commitment to volunteerism and a resistance to compulsory service except in wars requiring a massive call-up. With the exception of some community service programs in some high schools in certain states, this nation has never required its young citizens to perform civilian service.

The president’s call to service may be working. Applications by college graduates to AmeriCorps are up 75 percent and applications to the Peace Corps are up 18 percent, according to a June survey in Time. But the surge in interest may also be linked to the poor job market this past year for college graduates.

In short, there are limits to volunteerism. Can we do more? Here I lay out the case for moving beyond even the president’s new initiative toward some kind of universal service requirement, one that would offer all young Americans a choice, preferably after finishing high school, to enter military or civilian service for at least a year. Those opting and qualifying for the military would be given additional monetary incentives to do so.

Having a reasoned debate about universal service before September 11 would have been unthinkable. It isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) so anymore.

The Case for Universal Service, Now

As the Bush administration has reminded us, we are at war-this time, against an enemy whose main targets of attack are American civilians. Unlike past wars, this new war on terrorism, we are told, could last a generation or more. If, as appears likely, the nation may soon be at war with Iraq again, the question arises: why should the burden of the war—and the risks of getting injured or killed-rest only on the shoulders of those who volunteer to fight it?

There are answers to this question, of course. One is that the military should be able to handle even a stepped-up military campaign against terrorism. After all, the armed forces fought Iraq in 1991 with roughly 500,000 troops; this time around, the highest projections seem to fall in the 250,000 range. A second answer is that the men and women in uniform are paid to put themselves in harm’s way, and they volunteered to assume any risk of war that may come about.

But unlike America’s past foreign wars, the war on terrorism requires a vigilant homeland security effort in addition to an offensive military (and intelligence) campaign abroad. This time around, it is not just those in the military who are in harm’s way. We are all potential targets or victims-and thus all have some obligation to help secure America. As a practical matter, neither the economy nor society could function if everyone stood guard duty or devoted their time to protecting the homeland. Paid professionals have and will continue to carry out these duties. But if this new war is, as it is said to be, a generational event, then why not also ask the next generation-all of whom may be at risk-to help shoulder the security effort?

The need is there. Young people in service, provided they were properly trained, could substantially augment the guards now in place at a wide range of public and private facilities. The nation could also use many more inspectors at its ports—perhaps our greatest vulnerability today—where only a tiny fraction of incoming containers is examined. Some highly motivated young people may even decide to train for security-related careers—as police officers, customs or immigration officials, or FBI agents—and serving in all of these jobs should qualify for universal service.

Though one good reason for adopting universal service now is to respond to the military and homeland threat, universal service makes sense in other ways in this time of national peril.

First, universal service could provide some much-needed “social glue” in an embattled American society that is growing increasingly diverse—by race, national origin, and religious preference—and where many young Americans from well-to-do families grow up and go to school in hermetically sealed social environments. Twenty years ago, when America was much less diverse than it is now and is going to be, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (of all places) opined that mandatory service would constitute a “means for acculturation, acquainting young people with their fellow Americans of all different races, creeds, and economic backgrounds.”

Those words are as compelling today as when they were written. A service program in which young people from different backgrounds work and live together would do far more than college ever could to immerse young Americans in the diversity of our country. It would also help sensitize more fortunate young men and women, at an impressionable point in their lives, to the concerns and experiences of others from different backgrounds and give them an enduring appreciation of what life is like “on the other side of the tracks.”

Second, universal service could promote civic engagement, which, as Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam has persuasively argued in Bowling Alone, has been declining—or at least was before September 11. Some who perform service for the required period may believe their civic responsibilities will thereby be discharged, but many others are likely to develop an appreciation for helping others that could change the way they lead the rest of their lives.

Third, young people serving in a civilian capacity in particular would help satisfy unmet social needs beyond those associated with homeland security: improving the reading skills of tens of millions of Americans who cannot now read English at a high school level, cleaning up blighted neighborhoods, and helping provide social, medical, and other services to the elderly and to low-income individuals and families. Allowing individuals to delay their service until after college would enable them to bring skills to their service that could prove even more useful to society and may be a desirable option. But doing so would also reduce the benefits of added social cohesion from universal service, because it would tend to create two tiers of service, one for those who don’t go to college and another for those who do.

Finally, universal service would establish firmly the notion that with rights for ourselves come responsibilities to others. Of course, the Constitution guarantees all citizens certain rights—of free speech, of due process of law, to be free from discrimination, to vote—without asking anything of them in return. But why shouldn’t citizens be required to give something to their country in exchange for the full range of rights to which citizenship entitles them?

Countering the Objections

As Bruce Chapman makes clear in the article that follows, imposing a universal service requirement would raise serious objections aside from the philosophical one—opposition to any form of government compulsion and the temporary loss of liberty it entails.

Probably the most serious argument against universal service is its cost. Roughly 4 million students graduate from high school each year. A good benchmark for costs is the AmeriCorps program. According to official figures, the federal government spent roughly $10,000 for each AmeriCorps volunteer in fiscal year 2001. A plausible assumption is that the states and the private sector added perhaps another $7,000 (according to a 1995 study by the General Accounting Office, these costs amounted then to about $5,500 per person, so they might be close to $7,000 now). Given the relatively small numbers enrolled in AmeriCorps—about 50,000 annually—its per person costs may be higher than those for a much larger universal program, which would be able to amortize overhead costs over a much larger population. On the other hand, not all AmeriCorps volunteers live in a dormitory setting. Providing dormitories for all participants in a universal civilian program would raise the cost relative to AmeriCorps.

Balancing these factors, I assume here for illustrative purposes a per person cost of $20,000, which, if funded entirely by the federal government, would bring the total annual gross cost of the entire program to about $80 billion. From this figure, it would be necessary to subtract the costs of those who already serve in AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, as well as high school students who now volunteer for the military. In addition, some participants in a universal service program might be performing functions now carried out by paid workers. Taking all these offsets into account could bring the annual net incremental cost of the program down to, say, the $70 billion range—still a very large number.

Given the recent dramatic deterioration of the federal budget, a program of that magnitude would seem now to be a political nonstarter, and it may well be. Nonetheless, one potentially fair way to reduce costs and thereby make the idea of universal service more palatable from a budgetary perspective would be to implement the requirement initially as a lottery, much like the system that existed toward the end of the Vietnam War. Depending on the cutoff point, the program could be sized at any level that the political traffic could bear.

However large the program could turn out to be, those who may be tempted to dismiss as too costly a universal service requirement of any size must consider its benefits. A 1995 GAO cost-benefit analysis, for example, positively evaluated the findings of a 1995 study by George R. Neumann, Roger C. Kormendi, Robert F. Tamura, and Cyrus J. Gardner that had cited quantifiable monetary benefits of $1.68 to $2.58 for every dollar invested in three AmeriCorps programs. These estimates did not count the nonquantifiable, but very real, benefits of strengthening local communities and fostering civic responsibility. Nor did they include the broader benefits of added social cohesion that a universal program would entail. On the other side of the ledger, it is quite possible that there would be diminishing returns to a much broader program than AmeriCorps, and thus at some enrollment level the costs of a universal requirement could exceed the benefits. But even this result—which is hardly ensured—would not credit the nonquantifiable social benefits of a broader program.

The bottom line: even a universal service program as large as $70 billion a year could well produce social benefits in excess of that figure and thus represent a very real net economic and social gain for American society as a whole.

Of course, the gains from universal service would be realized only if the participants were doing valuable work. And some fear that under a universal requirement, many participants in the civilian program in particular could be doing make-work (raking leaves is the image) without contributing much in the way of social value. Indeed, to the extent this happened-and some assert that it happens in the AmeriCorps program-the affected participants would come away from their service with a negative view of government and civic responsibility.

The concern is real. AmeriCorps tries to address it by decentralizing its activities, relying on both state governments and the private sector to develop programs that are essentially certified at the federal level. A civilian universal service program could work largely the same way, but on a much-expanded scale. At the same time, certain programs, especially those associated with homeland security, would have to be run out of Washington.

Still, it would be a challenge to develop meaningful work for all of the high school graduates who would enter the civilian program each year. Meeting this challenge provides another reason, besides cost, to begin the program on a less than universal scale, run it first as a lottery, and eventually expand it to a true universal system.

An Idea Whose Time Is Coming

Universal service is an idea whose time may not be quite here, but it is coming. For reasons of need, social cohesion, and social responsibility, universal service is a compelling idea. If adopted, it could be one of the truly transformative federal initiatives of recent times, perhaps having an even greater impact on American society than the GI bill, which helped educate much of the post-World War II generation. At the very least, universal service should be on the public agenda and actively debated. The discussion alone would be a fitting postscript to the horrible events of September 11 and the continuing search for ways to engage all Americans to serve their country.