With the end of the military draft in 1973, Americans no longer faced the possibility mandatory national service. That means that two generations have come of age without having to serve their country. The draft had become associated with the nation’s ill-begotten war in Vietnam, and few lamented its demise. In retrospect, the free pass young Americans have been given seems like a mistake.
GIVE — the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act — is a step in the right direction, expanding opportunities for young Americans to serve their country. It recently won passage in the House, 321-105, indicating bipartisan support. Following the successful model of the Clinton administration’s AmeriCorps program, GIVE creates four new volunteer service corps to tackle problems in low-income communities. They include a Clean Energy Corps, which would encourage energy efficiency and conservation; an Education Corps to help increase student engagement, achievement and graduation; a Healthy Futures Corps that would work to improve access to health care; and a Veterans Service Corps to enhance veteran services.
Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District successfully included an amendment that expanded the Clean Energy Corps mission so it includes any work “providing clean energy services designed to meet the needs of rural communities.” On the House floor, she related how residents of the island communities North Haven — her hometown — and Vinalhaven worked to plan a wind turbine project.
The amendment extends opportunities for volunteerism in rural areas like Maine. The GIVE corps will “help encourage and support citizens of all ages who want to contribute to our clean energy future,” Rep. Pingree said, whether on wind turbine projects or community weatherization efforts.
The GIVE idea is several steps short of mandatory national service. A case can be made for returning to this concept; perhaps a year of service would be required, with plenty of approved local, statewide and nationwide organizations, as well as the military, for which young people could work.
In 2006, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York tried, unsuccessfully, to reinstitute a military draft. He argued that poor, inner city minorities were disproportionately bearing the burden of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many observers noted that if a national draft were in place, Congress would not have authorized the invasion of Iraq; just one member of Congress had a child serving when the war began.
The GIVE corps will help ambitious young men and women build skills, absorb new experiences, test themselves and see other parts of the country. In a poor economy, such service is a worthy detour from the job market. And our low-income communities will be the better for their work.