Nathan J. Ausubel
School Without Walls Senior High School
Third Place Winner, District of Columbia
A Failed Experiment with Public Service
In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported information that would make anyone think twice about the state of public service in the United States: in the previous year, the number of Americans involved in volunteer work had reached a low point of only 25.4% (“Volunteering in the United States”). Evidently, most 21st century Americans have forgotten the importance of public service. The government has tried various methods to remedy this situation, but none is more controversial than the Universal Service Act. The Universal Service Act, first introduced in 2003, would compel all young Americans from 18 to 26 years old to serve time in the military or in some other public service profession (Busch et. al.). The bill is intended to get young people involved in their communities, but it invites criticism about the government overextending its power and making intrusions into people’s lives. A better solution would be for the U.S. government to do more to encourage volunteer work without making it compulsory so that young people are not forced to stall their careers and so that the government does not repeat the mistakes made with mandatory public service in schools and in other countries.
As both sides of the debate acknowledge, the government needs to do more to encourage public service. Young people are needed in schools to tutor underprivileged students and in libraries to shelve books. Governments across the country are cutting the budgets of schools and libraries, so the need for public service in greater than ever (American Library Association). People are also needed to serve food at soup kitchens and to visit sick patients at hospitals. The government should also be promoting public service because of its positive effects on character. Public service helps people to understand their place in the community, to sympathize with elders and minority groups, and to prioritize the good of society above self gain (United Nations). Making public service mandatory could, in theory, be responsible for creating a civically minded group of people who are active in the community.
However, there is little evidence to suggest that the U.S. government must make public service mandatory to accomplish this goal. Instead, the government should expand existing programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps without making them compulsory. Currently, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps together only accept around 83,000 volunteers each year (“AmeriCorps,” “Fast Facts”). Public service organizations generally have low acceptance rates, suggesting that the problem is not a lack of interest in public service but rather a lack of public service jobs. Although Americans as a whole are indifferent about public service, there is a subset of the population that is eager to enroll in these programs if only there were enough available positions. Consider that in 2010, Teach for America only accepted 9.7% of applicants, making the application process as competitive as that for most Ivy League colleges (Winerip). The government has no need to make public service mandatory when it can simply expand the programs that already exist.
Making public service mandatory raises concerns about unjustified government intrusions. Under normal circumstances, when Congress requires the American people to fulfill a requirement, it draws its authority from the Constitution. For example, Article 1 of the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the authority to “law and collect taxes” (U.S. Constitution, Art. 1, Sec. 8). Similarly, Congress is permitted to create a military draft because even though the term “military draft” is never used in the Constitution, the draft is understood to be an extension of Congress’ right to “raise and support Armies” and to “provide and maintain a navy” (U.S. Constitution, Art. 1, Sec. 8). In comparison to taxation and the military draft, mandatory public service finds few justifications in the Constitution. If Congress enforced the Universal Service Act, it would be assuming a power not granted by Article 1 of the Constitution, and it would also be violating the Thirteenth Amendment, which forbids involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime (U.S. Constitution, Amend. 13, Sec. 1). A public service requirement is therefore a government intrusion.
The Universal Service Act also encroaches upon people’s lives on a personal level. Not all young Americans can afford to take a year out of their careers to spend in public service, as the Universal Service Act fails to acknowledge. Athletes need to spend as many years as possible playing their sport, since their careers, on average, are over by age 33 (Hadavi). Public service is not really a benefit for these athletes when all they can think of is the year of wasted potential. Doctors and lawyers also have good reason to complain about public service. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical lawyer spends four years as an undergraduate and an additional three years in law school (“Lawyer”). The average physician or surgeon is an even worse predicament after spending four years as an undergraduate, four years in medical school, and then three to eight years in an internship or residency program (“Physicians and Surgeons”). These professionals have already spent their youthful years working hard in school, so they should not be expected to take off an additional year in public service.
The United States does not yet have mandatory public service, but many school districts have required forty to a hundred hours of community service to the same effect. The results so far have been disheartening. Although some students genuinely care about helping the community, others are thinking of their own self-interests. Students are increasingly embarking on month-long service trips to disadvantaged parts of the world not just because they want to help the people but also because they want to appear competitive to colleges. In fact, college admissions officers have grown weary about hearing about “another trip to Africa” because so many parents are using the opportunity to bolster their child’s resume (Paul). But even as college admissions counselors voice their frustration, elite private schools are hiring “community service specialists” to prepare students’ resumes for the applicant pool (Powell). A serious concern about mandatory public service is that it could suffer the same fate as required community service hours; instead of serving the interests of disadvantaged people, young Americans would learn to take advantage of the public service to pursue their own self-interests.
Supporters of mandatory public service frequently make the argument that similar programs have worked in other countries such as Germany and Taiwan (Lee-St. John). Certainly, other countries have adopted compulsory public service, but whether these programs are successful is up to debate. The truth is that mandatory public service is controversial and has been scaled back in recent years, especially in Germany. Germany, for many years, had a policy that required men to serve for nine months in either the military or in a public service occupation (Frank). However, in 2009, the German government cut back the required length of service to six months, and two years later, it stopped requiring service altogether (Cowell; Frank). The German government’s change in policy exposed a couple uncomfortable truths about the public service sector. According to the Guardian, the roughly 90,000 men involved in public service were paid as little as 300 Euros per month, or approximately $375, less than half the U.S. minimum wage (Frank). To make matters worse, there were usually three times as many applicants as there were positions in the public service sector (Frank). Germany’s public service was not nearly as successful as advocates claimed it to be.
In 2014, Taiwan finds itself in a similar situation to what Germany faced in 2011. The Taiwanese government requires men to serve for one year, but they can substitute military service with “policing, firefighting, and environmental work” (Lee-St. John). The BBC reports that this forced conscription is unpopular, with young men routinely feigning illnesses or getting visas to travel to China where they will find higher wages and no draft awaiting them (Sui). Recognizing these problems, Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, has promised to put an end to one-year service by 2015 (Sui). Like Germany, Taiwan has experienced numerous complications with public service that should not be repeated in the United States.
On face value, the government has much to gain from making public service mandatory for all young Americans. Mandatory public service could help to improve the quality of schools and hospitals, and it might even instill civic values in the young generation. However, it is still a government intrusion because the Constitution does not give Congress such a power and because not every young American can afford to take a year out of his career. To make matters worse, making public service mandatory might lead to the same problems that have corrupted public service in schools and in other countries. The US government should encourage public service, of course, but it should not require mandatory public service for all Americans.
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----- Art. 1, Sec. 8.
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