At the end of April 1993 and in his 100th day of his first term, President Bill Clinton proposed a national service initiative that would provide financial support for college attendance, in exchange for a two-year commitment to “community service jobs.” He asked: “How can each American make a contribution?” Clinton held that opportunity for any American comes with responsibility.

Implementing this call for young adults to give two years of service will ameliorate many challenges we face today, such as job recruitment, training and placement; boosting military service recruitment, access to quality and accountable higher education, and boost a sense of community and national pride. It will assist in meeting many of the strategic goals set by all three sectors (government, nonprofit, and private.)

Our country has been familiar with formal, official, and organized national service, since the Civil War, given the need for a readied national defense. The scope of this service and its operations changes to meet the needs of the country in times of peace, conflict, and war. Various policies have been exercised in the recruitment, registration, training, and deployment, of defense service personnel. Whether enlisted or drafted and regardless of name, rank, and serial number, most Americans are grateful to the men and women who serve to protect us. Many have sacrificed their lives. 

A similar national operation and organization can be adopted to decide how best run a national service program in addition to military service for American adults and design citizens’ just rewards (two years of college education or job training), once served. This includes rules for ineligibility or any deferments, as is done with the military selective service. Service would be to either a government or nonprofit entity, but the for-profit sector would benefit from getting a readied and able workforce.

Volunteering for community and organizational initiatives is part of our American Heritage.

The American ideology is commonly associated with four classic characteristics of liberty, equality, individualism, and fraternity. Fraternity — often exercised through charity — might not be spoken as often as the other three characteristics, but it is well established in the country’s approach to living in a civil society.

The nonprofit sector arose from the belief in the idea that “we are our brother’s keeper” — combined with the American penchant for limited government. A summative description for why we have nonprofits in the United States is that they enhance and improve the human condition for the betterment of individuals and society.  Nonprofits exist for the public good; they do good work.

A national service program for young adults will mitigate several contemporary job preparation and hiring issues. Prior to the coronavirus shutdown, the job supply/demand picture was peculiar. There were plenty of job needs and while unemployment was relatively down, there was a high number of adults not working and not looking for work. A national service program for the government, including military service option, or the nonprofit sector should culture a positive attitude toward work as young adults as such a program will give a plethora of choices for whom they want to work for, doing what, and why.

A national service program should help employers with workforce recruitment and development planning as the availability of workers becomes more predictable. The pressure on teens and parents for “what to do next” after high school should be tempered, as it jolts the obligatory high school to college pathway.  High school graduates will have more freedom to choose their next step, have more options, and feel good about their entry level job prospects. Furthermore, national service in some way is an elixir for the latent adolescence we are experiencing, especially among boys.

A required two years of national service should push higher education to reinvent its mission and purpose and right size who is going to college, when, why, and who pays. Higher education is at a crossroads now, having shifted a bit with the advent of online teaching/learning, calls by policymakers and the public on accountability of outcomes, calls to declare a true “value proposition” beyond the standard viewbooks, and force a reversal of the ever-rising tuitions causing massive student and parent debt.

Required national service will help our armed forces which is crying for recruits. As with the workplace and higher education, our military should get the right recruits, at the right time in their lives, and for the right reason. This could be a healthier boost to diversity in the military than current approaches thus far.

Finally, a much needed and long-term benefit of a national service for young adults is to restore healthy patriotism. Most have had years of indoctrination that there is little good in America and that we were built by bad acts undertaken by ugly people. President Clinton’s message in the 1990s revived John F. Kennedy’s call for us to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

In fact, national service should instill in young adults a fundamental principle that is not taught: A precursor to any right of a citizen in a county is the responsibility that others must respect those rights and not encroach upon them. We can continue to teach a litany of rights that we have as individuals and groups, but these are meaningless unless we first teach and nurture a sense of responsibility not just to individuals and groups to our communities.

There is ample evidence that enough youth are going in the opposite direction from this foundational principle by taking a destructive anarchist approach, rather than being builders for a better America.

Recently UK Prime Minister UK Rishi Sunak announced plans to bring back required military or community service to regain a healthy “national spirit.” As President Clinton said in support of his plan for major national community service, it is about everyone living up to their God giving ability. Helping ourselves and helping each other at the same time.

Stephen F. Gambescia is professor and director of an Interprofessional Doctor of Health Science program at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions. His research and writing areas are in macro public policy issues.

2 thoughts on “Stephen F. Gambescia: America needs national service”

  1. This call for military service is straight out of “Starship Troopers” by Robert A. Heinlein. Where earth is run by a global government and the rights of a full citizen, to vote and hold public office, are not universally guaranteed. Instead they must be earned through Federal Service. Those who do not perform this service (which usually takes the form of military service) retain the rights of free speech and assembly, but can neither vote nor hold public office.

    This is not what America is about.

  2. Dr. Gambescia, what a magnificent piece. I write this as barbaric young people are attacking police in Center City and vandalizing City Hall in the name of some fake genocide in Gaza. We need to require something more of young people than they are currently willing to give. No more asking. Now it’s time to start demanding some gratitude for the freedoms their elders and betters fought for. Great piece.

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *