Commentary

In Support of National-Service System for Youths

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Virtually every industrial country is now burdened with unprecedented rates of unemployment, especially among young people. In our country, the affliction appeared earlier than elsewhere. It has been intensified by disastrous rates of unemployment among inner-city minority youths.

One major reform that has been advanced in response to this problem is the adoption of a system of national service. It is a concept that I support, though national service, taken by itself, cannot be considered a direct or specific cure for youth unemployment. France and West Germany have had national-service systems for many years, but neither country has escaped high youth-unemployment rates. There is little doubt that a system of national service could have many desirable consequences for the economic future of the young. But those gains would be of a general nature, a by-product of fulfilling other national and individual needs. There is no way to produce enough jobs to go around except through a high rate of economic growth. And there is no effective cure for inadequate skills, inadequate education, and inadequate motivation except through substantial programs that address each of these problems.

The national-service concept has been defined as "an idea that recognizes that individuals can and should contribute to the larger society and that society should be structured to ... encourage such activity." It rests on a belief that contributed service is a vital part of citizenship, an act that can help bind us together as a people, accomplish needed tasks, and provide for individual growth and improvement. And most blueprints for national-service systems seek to address one or more of three critical needs: providing for national security and the common defense, providing opportunities for young people to help solve social and environmental problems, and providing opportunities for personal development.

Given a well-designed system, a period of service could open new perspectives for young people and new ways for them to better themselves as workers and as citizens.

The numerous models of national service can be classified according to five criteria: whether a given plan is totally mandatory, totally voluntary, or somewhere in between; the degree to which the model calls for universal or selective registration; its scale--that is, how many of those registered would actually be asked to serve; the emphasis to be placed on personal improvement and development; and the questions of cost and management.

For many people, the national-security goals of national service are paramount; these advocates have little interest in any plan that fails to satisfy such goals. The United States ended the draft in 1972; since then, we have relied on volunteers to fill the 2.1 million positions in the armed forces. The all-volunteer force has suffered from many serious problems, some of which--for example, the average educational level of enlisted personnel--would probably improve under a national service system.

Most models of national service presume the existence of large numbers of unmet, important social and environmental tasks that many youths could perform. The key word is important; digging and filling holes or similar make-work tasks would be fatal to the integrity of the national-service idea.

Are there, in fact, enough productive jobs today for national-service members to undertake without displacing other workers? In the past year or two, the problems of America's decaying infrastructure--roads, bridges, transportation systems, and the like--have been a sad story in the media and the basis of all kinds of jobs legislation in the Congress. The proponents of national service generally do not see it as a work force for reconstructing or rehabilitating all aspects of that infrastructure. The changes that have occurred since the 1930's, including the rise of organized labor, must be taken into account. But according to recent estimates, even if tasks in the public-works sector were excluded from the national-service mandate (except for some maintenance tasks), there would still be no lack of assignable tasks for national-service workers to perform.

Many staunch supporters of the national-service concept believe that young people would come to regard national service not as an unwelcome burden but as an interval for personal exploration and growth. They recall with fondness the best years of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the Peace Corps, and the civil-rights movement, when young people from a diversity of backgrounds volunteered with enthusiasm for a variety of assignments in many different locations. The alumni of those activities generally report that they were better people when they came out than when they went in. In later years, those periods of service were proudly included in job resumes.

None of us can say to what extent similar attitudes prevail among today's young people. Nor can we be sure of how well national service would function for street-corner youths with backgrounds of truancy, drug abuse, and crime.

Evaluations of the Job Corps, which enrolled large numbers of the disadvantaged, indicate that most participants have benefited from their experience as measured by improved readiness for work and attitudes toward it. According to several surveys of Job Corps alumni, those who remained in the Job Corps for more than three months gained significantly in self-esteem, willingness to accept authority, and in their ability to use leisure time effectively.

No one believes that national service would work magic on all its enrollees. Service in the armed forces has not done so, despite considerable efforts by the military in remedial education and similar compensatory programs. Such programs have had only mixed success, as evidenced by persistent disciplinary problems and a high incidence of less-than-honorable discharges. But the record also shows that a successful period of service has been a pivotal factor in the efforts of many youths to carve out rewarding careers and a life in the mainstream of society.

The concept of national service, however, has critics as well as supporters. Some of the criticism comes from those who are opposed on moral or legal grounds to any kind of mandatory plan. Some object to the complexity of such a large undertaking and others are troubled by its potential cost.

One thing is clear, though: The implementation of a large-scale national-service program would constitute a major reform. And that reform would be greatly facilitated if it were preceded by a period of comprehensive research, thoughtful planning, and informed public debate.

In support of the public debate, the Ford Foundation recently made a substantial grant to a private study group to assess several models of national service, measuring each against criteria of individual and social needs and operational and administrative feasibility. The final report, to be ready at the end of the year, will estimate the likely costs and benefits of national service--to labor markets; to rural and urban communities; to the armed forces; and to the employment, earnings, and attitudes of young people themselves.

National service is a compelling concept that merits a place near the top of the national agenda. Security needs may make the concept an urgent one. But the idea would have sweep and power even for a society unthreatened by external enemies and without armies. In its fullest expression, national service can be an institution of historic importance to America's youth--and to America's future.

Vol. 02, Issue 37, Page 24

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