There is no single solution to America's interrelated problems of massive debt, high unemployment, youthful angst and general lack of civility in society. But any idea that could address several of these issues simultaneously would at least be worth trying. In that spirit, I offer one such proposal.
Congress should consider enacting a law requiring every citizen ages 16 to 26 to spend at least one year in a service-oriented role in the community. This service could be in the military, the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the Peace Corps, Teach for America, AmeriCorps, or any other yet-to-be-identified service group. Program participants would receive a minimal stipend (perhaps relative to the minimum wage found in that area) as well as health benefits. Extensions beyond the minimal one-year period would allow for increased reimbursements, especially in the military.
This program could allow internships for service in mental-health institutions. It might be extended to include medical and age-related service by young adults in a mutually agreed manner. Why not include forestry and agriculture service areas as well? There might also be consideration for educational credits toward advanced degree work in selected areas.
A mandatory year of service for all would, in the end, give our children the exposure and awareness about American values that they might not have received in high school.
What problems might this solve?
•First, a professional military without citizen control and participation is a danger to democracy. This would help to correct that potential problem and (as with the draft) would also lead people to think twice before supporting military action, since their sons and daughters might have to fight. It would also no longer be necessary to remind the general public that we are, in fact, still at war.
•Second, unemployment, especially among the youth of our nation, is very high. Through this initiative, we can offer them entry-level experiences while encouraging a work ethic coupled with the knowledge that they are helping to solve a societal problem. It might also allow the nation's young people time to slow down and consider that someone other then themselves is just as important as they are. Any student dropping out of high school would be required to fulfill the service requirement immediately; this population, otherwise prone to trouble, would thus be gainfully engaged. (Conversely, the service requirement may deter some who would otherwise drop out from doing so.) Others may put the service off with approval of a local board until they finish college and thereby have more talents to offer at a very reasonable rate. College debts would be deferred while in service.
•Third, this would help the debt crisis. If a young person must learn to live on a minimum wage, surely this will contribute to his or her understanding of "limited means." We are a nation of vast resources but high consumption rates. Perhaps it is time we learn to live more within our true means. This will also make a large pool of labor available at low cost to benefit society.
•Fourth, it is suggested that we have an illegal immigration problem. If immigrants come to our nation to take low-paying jobs because Americans will not do them, what better way to address the problem than this service requirement? If we stop farm subsidies but provide low-cost labor to pick our vegetables and fruit, we may solve that problem as well. This should also help with the country's obesity problem. Anyone working hard in a field all day would surely gain not only physical benefits but an appreciation of hard work.
To be clear: I do not blame all of society's ills on our young people. This is a shared responsibility. This service solution may have a cost, at least initially. Those of us who pay taxes will bear this burden, and for my part, I would gladly pay. Let us consider it an ongoing stimulus package.
Is such a service-oriented solution to our problems beyond our Congress' ability to pass?
Tom Wieland, a Salisbury resident, is serving in the Peace Corps in the eastern Caribbean. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.