Johanna L. Siegel
School Without Walls Senior High School
First Place Winner, District of Columbia
Public service is an important part of living in and giving back to a community, and encouraging greater participation in public service is a laudable goal. However, compelling a year of public service can cause more harm than benefit to some individuals, their families, and even to the institutions the public service is intended to help.
The implementation of required public service raises serious constitutional and enforcement issues. Slavery, another word for coerced ‘mandatory service’, was abolished and found unconstitutional as a result of the Civil War. Just as runaway slaves were punished in the U.S. into the mid-19th century, would we also have to punish those who refused to comply with a mandatory service requirement?
Putting this concern aside for the moment, devoting a year to public service should not be required because there is no clear definition of public service, because it could deprive some young Americans and their families of a year of income or interfere with other critical life-choices, and because it could interfere with the effective functioning of nonprofit organizations where those seeking to fulfill their mandatory service requirement would be placed. Furthermore, when compelled, public service is subject to being performed unwillingly, poorly, and without enthusiasm. Coerced service undermines the very spirit of public service, an activity best performed through self-motivation. Coerced service could cause some individuals to reduce, rather than increase, the amount of voluntary service they perform later in life.
A requirement that all young Americans complete a year of public service implies that there is one agreed-upon definition of the term “public service”, which there is not. To me, public service brings to mind activities such as maintaining a hiking trail, painting a mural on the wall of a school, or volunteering in a children’s ward at a local hospital. I think of public service as an act that improves lives, the environment, or the experience of someone else. Others, however, might consider joining the Army or handing out flyers about global warming to be a public service. There is no clear-cut definition of public service, and if the government attempts to create one, it may well exclude valid ideas that young Americans have of what public service could be.
Inconsistencies already exist in how high school community service requirements are carried out. For example, my high school in the District of Columbia requires every student to complete at least one hundred hours of community service before graduation. This requirement must be fulfilled by volunteering at a 501(c)(3) organization, such as the DC Central Kitchen, the Humane Society, or St. John’s Church. A neighboring Maryland county has a similar graduation requirement, however it does not allow students to acquire community service hours by volunteering at religious institutions, even if they are 501(c)(3) organizations. This exclusion turns some students away from valid service opportunities and activities they may enjoy doing, such as volunteering as a teacher’s aide at their former religious school.
Furthermore, both the District of Columbia and its neighboring county exclude service performed outside of a 501(c)(3) organization. Some students, however, might regard organizing an effort to pick up trash on the side of a road or planting flowers in a community garden to be a public service. “These activities are not performed through a 501(c)(3) organization,” the school would say, “so they do not count”. But they should count! The individual benefits through having done a good deed and the beneficiaries gain an improved environment. Setting requirements for what qualifies as an act of public service necessarily excludes many legitimate options.
Requiring students to complete a year of public service could also be considered by some to be a breach of individual rights and liberties. To be clear, public service is a commendable goal that everyone should consider. But for some, the year of service may interfere with an individual’s career path. For example, professional athletes and dancers must pursue their careers while they are in their physical prime. A year of mandatory public service after high school could cause them to lose valuable training and practice time, and prevent them from making it into a dance company or onto a sports team. One resolution could be to exempt individuals pursuing these professions from the service requirement. Yet such a “solution” would only raise more questions such as: who else should be exempted from the public service requirement? Are people with mental or physical disabilities required to do public service? How about people with child care responsibilities? What about those with criminal records or drug habits? All of these questions will only lead to more questions, which makes the reality of setting up a mandatory public service program so taxing that it may deter counties, states, or even the federal government from attempting to enforce it.
Supporters of a mandatory, year-long service requirement should also consider that some young Americans come from disadvantaged backgrounds and must work to contribute income to their families. Others must earn money for their future education. Requiring a young person to complete a year of unpaid service could cause some to forsake a year of income and could compromise their ability to afford higher education. It would also cause the young person’s family to have to support them for a year when that person could be earning much needed income.
Another important consideration is the impact on the nonprofit organizations where those seeking to fulfill their mandatory service requirement would seek placement. In 2010, there were approximately 4.4 million eighteen-year-olds1in the United States, and approximately 13.7 million individuals working for nonprofit organizations2. Imagine flooding the existing nonprofit workforce and organizations with 4.4 million untrained young Americans seeking to fulfill their service requirement. Organizations without the ability to handle this huge influx would need to devote more time and resources to absorb those seeking to fulfill their mandatory service requirement than they would gain from the value of their service. Those organizations that can take on new workers might need to assign them busy work that would do nothing to further their careers and would be very unsatisfying. A bad service experience could discourage the young people from volunteering in the future. And, some organizations may choose to replace lower-skill employees with those seeking to fulfill their service requirement.
Young Americans should not be required to spend at least one year in public service as there is no universal definition of public service; such a requirement could be a breach of individual rights and liberties, it could cause a young person to forgo income, it could be a burden on nonprofit organizations, and it might reduce the likelihood that the young person would engage in acts of public service later in life. No one wants to be forced to do something, be it public service or something else entirely. Public service is a wonderful activity to take part in and should be highly encouraged for all young Americans. But if young Americans begin to associate public service with other required every-day tasks, they will come to resent it, and that is not a way to make our world better. The point of public service is that the person performing the service and the people receiving the service both benefit. So, if service is compulsory can it really be called a service?
Banks, James. "Mandatory National Service? Thanks But No Thanks." Mic. N.p., 22 July 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Howden, Lindsay M., and Julie A. Meyer. Age and Sex Composition: 2010. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, 2011. United States Census. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
National Constitution Center. "Should a Year of National Service Be Required for All Americans?" The Exchange: A Marketplace of Student Ideas (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. Roeger, Katie L., Amy S. Blackwood, and Sarah L. Pettijohn. The Nonprofit Almanac 2012. The Urban Institute: 2012, 35.
1. Howden, Lindsay M., and Julie A. Meyer. Age and Sex Composition: 2010. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, 2011. United States Census. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. 2. Roeger, Katie L., Amy S. Blackwood, and Sarah L. Pettijohn. The Nonprofit Almanac 2012. The Urban Institute: 2012, 35.