Iraq and national security are the issues likely to have the greatest effect on the outcome of the presidential race. The economy will come next, followed by education and health care, with polemic social issues like abortion and gay marriage motivating activists on both ends of the spectrum. Noticeably and tragically absent from this debate will be the expansion of national service. The lack of discussion on the need for sacrifice for country and for humanity could not have come at a worse time.
Today’s young adults hardly lack the motivation to serve; last year the American Association of Colleges and Universities reported that two thirds of college seniors engaged in some form of community service. Yet somehow few college students view service at the national level as something worthwhile, even for one or two years. Our political leaders, and especially our presidential candidates, would do the country good to devote more time to this issue. Granted, this would not be a miracle cure, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush touted the USA Freedom Corps, a new umbrella group bringing together all national service organizations. He set the twin goals of doubling the number of Peace Corps volunteers within five years and recruiting 200,000 new volunteers for AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. In his 2004 address, he said not a word on the subject. Maybe it’s because, as the Brookings Institution had predicted a month earlier, Congress did not give the Peace Corps the resources it needs to achieve its goal, while AmeriCorps also remained under-funded.
Senator John Kerry has drawn up a much more impressive plan for promoting national service, but he has barely mentioned it since he clinched the Democratic nomination. This is a pity, because his Service for College initiative – which promises four years of college aid to anyone who goes into teaching, homeland security, or other areas of service upon graduating – would provide a great incentive for many young people to enlist in service programs. Senator Kerry needs to speak louder on this important topic. In some respects, he also needs to think bigger. His proposal to bring qualified teachers into poor schools is framed exactly the right way, and it would certainly plug holes left by President Bush’s giving up on No Child Left Behind. But as Clinton administration budget advisor Matt Miller points out, he offers only $3 billion per year of the annual $30 billion needed to produce good results.
The need for young Americans to serve for their country is greater than at any time since World War II. Our military is over-stretched – national guardsmen and reservists are staying in Iraq longer than expected because too few are willing to put on the uniform. At a time when the United States is so often seen as an evil empire that exploits poor countries for selfish reasons, there is no better way to win hearts and minds than sending a new wave of Peace Corps volunteers to help grow struggling economies and educate children. On the home front, the shortage of good teachers, tutors and after-school programs in public schools, particularly in poor urban areas, deprives millions of children of the chance to reach their full academic potential. Our country needs a new generation of citizen-soldiers; citizens who acknowledge the need to give something back to the country that has given them so much. If we are serious about leaving this nation in a better state than we found it, our generation must be prepared to answer the call to service.
-The writer is a sophomore majoring in international affairs