Jeanne M. Hathway
Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School
Washington, DC
11th Grade
Second Place Winner, District of Columbia 
 

Bilaterally Beneficial

     The implementation of a public service requirement for young Americans would not be a government intrusion provided that it adhered to the Constitution and ensured that its overall benefits would greatly outweigh its costs. 

     The idea of requiring anyone, much less young people, to enroll in public service is controversial; and yet, the requirement stated here specifically pertains to “young” Americans. Most Americans between the ages of 15 and 20 are in the midst of receiving an education—a process that should not be interrupted. Therefore, presenting the service requirement as a necessary extension of education would be the most successful means of ensuring its success. The term “public service” implies a limitless list of possible positions, including (but not limited to) environmental protection, social work, education, health care, emergency response teams, and transportation. If young people were required to spend a year in “public service,” they could potentially spend a year doing any job that caught their personal interest. 

     While some may argue that requiring young people to work violates constitutional rights, they must also consider the demands that the education system already places on students. It requires them to commute to the same location five days per week, where, with set hours and zero wages, they are given hundreds of tasks each day and expected to complete every single one, regardless of external conflicts, meaning that in addition to the seven hours a student spends each day in a school building, he or she will also spend an average of 3.51 hours completing work at home—all of which students will have done for a decade by the required age of sixteen. By contrast, a public service requirement would likely require a smaller overall time commitment than school. Theoretically, such a requirement would be a smaller government “intrusion” into the lives of America’s youth than the nation’s current educational requirements. 

     In addition to being theoretically possible, a public service requirement is also legally feasible. The Tenth Amendment2 restricts the federal government to the powers that the Constitution has explicitly granted it. Enforcing a national public service requirement is not one of these powers. As a result, each level of the government would play a different role in carrying out this requirement. 

     Because the federal government does not have the right to impose a national public service requirement (except in the event of a military draft), the extent to which it could support one would include encouraging national dialogue on the subject, circulating information about its successes, and assisting communities in solving complex problems related to the issue3. The federal government could make research-based suggestions about which areas of public service the country would most benefit from increasing. 

     At the next level down, each state would then have the right to decide whether or not to enforce and further develop such a requirement. States would also possess the responsibility of determining where to send their public service workers and establishing limits for workers’ hours. In addition, the state would decide how to assign positions to young workers. The state could choose either to place workers in positions itself, or to offer individuals an aptitude test and selective application process. 

     Under the state, local governments would compile concrete lists of available public service positions and coordinate with the organizations providing the work. While the state would determine the means of placing workers in positions, communities would hold responsibility for final decisions regarding an individual’s placement and enforce attendance. 

     A public service requirement would benefit the nation as a whole as well as the individual worker. Creating a moveable workforce five million young Americans4 strong would enable the nation to solve many of its problems at the local level. Because state and local governments would manage public service assignments, each state would have a workforce catered to its personal, annual needs. 

     Use Camden, New Jersey, as an example. A recent study5 listing the 100 most dangerous6 American cities rated Camden as the third most dangerous city in the nation. Laden with gang violence and a rampant drug trade, Camden seems to have lost all hope for improvement. But over the course of two weeklong service trips to the city, I have personally witnessed the community’s resilience and desire for change. Discussions with parents, youths, and leaders of charitable organizations within the city resulted in the same idea of a solution: improved education. Many people, including myself, assume that improving the education system simply means providing it with more funding, but this is not the case. By contrast, the 2013 New Jersey Education Funding Report actually dedicated an entire section to the topic “High Levels of Funding Are not Sufficient for High Performance”7. Similarly, the Camden Education Association released a statement this year regarding their educational needs, explaining that “students grappling with external societal issues create the need for more school psychologists, district employed social workers, special education staff, behavioral therapists, and even nurseries for teen mothers looking to continue their education”8. In other words, Camden schools need more service workers, not just better paid teachers. 

     The implementation of a public service requirement would immensely benefit cities like Camden by enabling them to send immediate aid to struggling school zones to directly improve the educational situation of the underprivileged students there, while also working long-term with the state and federal government to change the education system as whole. This way, the education of the underfunded students would not get lost in the hiatus between the community requesting more government aid and actually receiving it. This, however, is just one example—public service also covers areas of environmental protection, health care, and urban development. 

     The experiential education that young Americans would get through public service would provide them with skills that cannot be taught in a classroom. It would give them the chance to gain firsthand knowledge of real-world problems, fiscal responsibility, and relationships with people of all ages and backgrounds. Most students do not get the chance to see personally how their learning benefits other people. Frankly, many students fail to see the true purpose of their education at all because the lack of exposure to the outside world infuses them with the tragically false notion that the first eighteen years of their lives are about test scores. 

     In countries where young people are discouraged and forbidden from receiving educations, doing so becomes a privilege instead of a burden. Individuals who view their education as a means of helping others— not just a step in the road to personal economic gain or an unnecessary source of stress—find greater value in their learning and apply it more efficiently. Through a year of public service, young Americans would have the opportunity to truly explore their passions and interests and gain better understanding of themselves without the debilitating pressures of the classroom. They would enter university-level learning and real world occupations with more intimate knowledge of themselves, greater maturity, and a stronger realization of how they contribute to society. 

     Far from being a government intrusion, a public service requirement would strengthen and equip the youth, which would in turn strengthen and improve the entire country. 


  1. Average hours spent on homework per week: 2007. Chart. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, (PFI-NHES), 2007. Youth Indicators 2011 America’s Youth: Transitions to Adulthood. Table 35.National Center for Education Statistics. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012026/tables/table_35.asp>. 

  2. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” US Const. amend. X. (amended 1791). Print. 

  3. Modeled after the role of the US Department of Education as described in their mission statement: “Raising national and community awareness of the education challenges confronting the Nation, disseminating the latest discoveries on what works in teaching and learning, and helping communities work out solutions to difficult educational issues.”* *(U.S. Department of Education. The Federal Role in Education. Washington: GPO, 2012. U.S. Department of Education. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/role.html>. Mission, para. 2) 

  4. The approximate number of 18-19 year old Americans as of 2010. Sources: U .S . Census Bureau, Census 2000 Summary File 1 and 2010 Census Summary File 1. 

  5. "100 most dangerous cities 2014." Neighborhood Scout. Location, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/nj/camden/crime/>. 

  6. Based on the number of violent crimes permitted per 1,000 residents. 

  7. New Jersey Department of Education. Education Funding Report. Part I, Section D, p. 23. Christopher D. Cerf, Acting Commissioner. February 23, 2013. 

  8. Camden Education Association. "Blatant Disregard and Disrespect." Camden Education Association. Camden Education Association, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://camdenea.org/shout-outs/>.