Social Security

Serve the (Old) People

National Service or Generational Welfare?

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“Ask not what your country can do for youâ€"ask what you can do for your country.” If only John F. Kennedy could have known what his 1961 call to service would become: a rallying cry for generations of rich, middle-aged men convinced that the nation’s youth are lazy, unpatriotic ingrates.

Normally, we can shrug off such nonsense and chalk it up to nostalgia (“Ah, for the days of Camelot!”) or the positive correlation between age and irritability. But having endured a primary campaign rife with candidates and pundits of both parties yapping about how putting me to work for almost no pay is in the nation’s interest, I’ve stopped laughing. This national service fever must stop.

The most earnest (and turgid) call for national service this election cycle comes to us not from a candidate but from Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel. In a cover story last September, Stengel declared that dramatically expanding our national service programs would cure an astounding number of social ills. Stengel doesn’t want to mandate participation, but he is quite clear about who should save America: not Time’s senior staff, but young people, for whom service will prove “a countrywide rite of passage.”

In an equally earnest speech last December, a very Kennedyesque Barack Obama fleshed out his own vision of a national service utopia. His version is (relatively) benign: It isn’t supposed to be mandatory, and only parts have a whiff of “get off your asses, young punks”â€"namely, his proposal to knock $4,000 off college tuition for any student who agrees to perform 100 hours of community service annually. He does flirt with compulsion, though, setting “a goal of having middle and high schoolers contribute at least 50 hours a year to community service.”

Although Obama and Stengel steer clear of overt calls for conscription, other presidential candidates were happy to beat that drum. Former Democratic contenders Chris Dodd and John Edwards each made national service a campaign centerpiece and floated the idea of requiring public high school students to perform community chores as a prerequisite for graduation. Imagine the Democrats’ utopia: millions of uninspired teenagers skipping homework to perform involuntary servitude. Can’t you feel the civic pride?

As for Republicans, boy, are those guys about to nominate a national service militant. John McCain envisions a robust program of servitude as a crucial part of his creepy crusade to wipe out cynicism about government institutions. With Obama heading full sail toward his party’s nomination, the coming McCain-Obama contest holds great promise for those who hope to see the day when youth are expected to perform nearly free labor as a matter of federal policy.

National service proponents never really explain why young people are uniquely suited for their schemes. Rather, they rely on the common assumption that kids should be put to work because, well, they’re kids!

Nearly all the national service proposals also target a particular kind of young American: the less than wealthy. Obama’s $4,000 tuition forgiveness and other such college fee incentives are far too small to entice the rich to serve. Poor children are far more likely to seek free public education than wealthy ones, and programs such as Dodd’s or Edwards’ would force students most likely to be at the receiving end of community service into community service.

Politicians usually embed these ideas in ennobling, Kennedyesque rhetoric about serving your country. I’d be more inclined vote for a candidate who says something like this: “As president, I’ll try to put your kids to work as soon as they’re out of the house. Not for full pay, of course, or anything resembling fair compensation. When Junior hits his formative years around high school and college, my administration will dangle all kinds of incentives that amount to a fraction of what you, a fully grown adult, would get for doing the same work.”

At least you couldn’t fault him for his honesty.

Paul Thornton
is an assistant articles editor at the
Los Angeles Times editorial page.