Eli M. Kane
Walter Johnson High School
Second Place Winner, Maryland
The Problem of How to Help
The United Sates is a country founded on the ideal of freedom of choice. Granted, in times of crisis, it is the government's responsibility to increase its role in daily life and make decisions usually left up to the citizens (e.g., the draft during wartime.) The proposal to require a mandatory year of public service for all young Americans involves a similar infringement on individual rights. Given that there is no such crisis, it seems both unnecessary and impractical to institute such a program. There are a number of problems with a nationwide service requirement. First, the one-year time frame greatly limits the benefits of service, given the need for initial training. Second, training and funding every graduating youth in the United States would put a strain on the national economy that far outweighs the services they provide. Finally, a year of service to the government creates a significant intrusion at a time that could be better served by continuing one's education or joining the workforce. Therefore, a mandatory year of public service for all young adults is logistically impractical, a budgetary drain, and a lifestyle interruption that is not beneficial enough to be reasonable. A far better solution is to incentivize, rather than require, a longer-term commitment to public service in order to maximize benefit for cost.
In order to set up a regimen of mandatory public service, the government would need to train all of its new employees. In this essay, public service will be defined according to the AmeriCorps definition: service in the areas of health care, public safety, education, and environmental protection1. This argument will also assume that the year of mandatory service will begin after graduation from high school, because this is the most reliable time for tracking and organizing such an endeavor. Immediately following high school is the only time when most young people are similarly without commitment and easily located in their home towns. The training that the government could provide for a one-year contract should only be for low-level, menial jobs if the training and service time are to be proportional. However, these positions are not the ones that most need to be filled. For example, a young person could be trained for basic public relations and healthcare education2, but there is far lower demand than supply for these roles. Crossing guards could also be trained easily. Unfortunately, there are relatively few crossing guard positions and these jobs provide an important part-time supplement to many families' incomes. Easily trainable roles such as these are not nearly as necessary as the jobs that require far more training.
The roles with the largest impact require an impractical amount of training, both prior to and on the job. There is a predicted shortage of nurses, due to growing health care demands (especially with the new, government-run sector of health care) and the impending retirement of Baby-Boomer nurses.3 Therefore, the healthcare system is going to need an influx of nurses and technicians to fill these gaps, but the training required is unattainable for a one-year commitment. The same problem exists in the public safety sector. Fire volunteers4, EMTs5, and especially police officers all require at least weeks of training before serving in any useful capacity. In addition, experience is incredibly important in these fields and opportunities are already competitive. If all positions were filled by eighteen-year-olds fresh out of training, the effectiveness of these roles would decline significantly and public safety with it. The third category of service, working in our nation's schools, simply could not be filled by these young adults. Teaching would be the most important role to fill, due to a shortage of teachers in the US. However, the only people qualified to supervise new teachers would be experienced teachers, and this would defeat the purpose of having teaching volunteers. Environmental protection is a final example of a sector where the roles that have the most impact (researchers, engineers, and policymakers) cannot be filled by the intended target. The consistent problem that arises with a one-year contract proposal is that the positions that most need to be filled cannot be without considerable training, training which is not proportionate to the time served.
Beyond the evidence that the cost and benefit balance is not tilted in benefit's favor, the cost of the proposed endeavor may be too much for the government to bear. Each year, the government would be adding the entire graduating class of that year to its annual budget. Ethically, each student would have to be paid at least minimum wage, and many more important positions would merit even higher pay. However, for the following calculations the positions will pay the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.6 According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 3.3 million Americans will graduate high school in 2015.7 Based on a standard forty hour work week, employees would receive an annual salary of $15,080. This means that the federal government would have to add an additional 49.8 billion to the yearly budget, and this number can only rise with the population. This addition would be the sixth largest item on President Obama's 2015 budget.8 The proposed program would strain an already struggling economy. In addition to causing money troubles, the proposal would throw many young students' lives off track.
A majority of graduating seniors enroll in higher education, and a year-long forced break between educational institutions would make starting up again that much more difficult. High schools have been increasingly tailored towards preparing students for college, and train students in many useful habits for a college lifestyle. If graduates immediately entered a full-time job, they would have to unlearn these study habits in favor of work habits, and then relearn the study habits for entry into college. An already difficult and stressful transition would be made even more trying by this disconnect in lifestyles. Beyond the interruption of habits would be the interruption of subject matter. By senior year, many high school students focus their schedules around classes that inform their intended majors. A full-year break between important classes would significantly slow the momentum of knowledge and make college classes more challenging to the point that average four-year graduation rates may decrease. A much better proposal is to allow young people to follow their intended paths, but make it favorable to spend some time in public service.
Advocates of a one year mandatory service program might argue that for a significant number of Americans who do not enroll in college, a year of service would provide experience that would aid in job searches later. While this may be true, the benefit is still not proportional to the cost. A longer-commitment, voluntary program would work far better. Such a program would help balance the discrepancy between training and payoff. Additionally, the voluntary nature would self-select for the participants for whom this is a good career path. The government could partially cover training costs for public service positions that do not require a college degree under an extended contract, perhaps four or five years. This opportunity would also help young adults enter the workforce with a career prospect. For the college educated, the federal government could increase financial aid or partially subsidize students who pledge to work in a public service area related to their major for four or five years. This program would function similarly to and ROTC program and would eliminate complications with training the participants and interrupting their education. Incentivizing public service, rather than mandating it, ameliorates much of the impracticalities, economic stress, and lifestyle disruption that a mandated program would incur. Vital positions can be filled by competent and well trained people, and a longer commitment will increase the quality of the services. If the government promotes serving the population with a push, not a shackle, then the citizens and their government can work towards improving their country together.
- 1. "AmeriCorps." Corporation for National and Community Service. Corporation for National and Community Service, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
2. "HealthCare Volunteer." HealthCare Volunteer. The Non-Profit for Global Healthcare, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
3. Ramach, Vignesh. "The New Nursing Shortage." USA Today. Gannett, 07 May 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
4. Lawrence, Cameron. "How Firefighter Training Works." HowStuffWorks. InfoSpace LLC, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
5. "How Long Does It Take to Become an EMT." Education Portal. Education Portal, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.
6. "Minimum Wage." Wage and Hour Division (WHD). United States Department of Labor, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
7. "Back to School Statistics." National Center for Education Statistics. US Department of Education, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
8. "The Budget." The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.