Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg just released his plan for new national service programs, including a Climate Corps, and a chief service officer in the White House.
The plan would move the country “towards a universal, national expectation of service” for all high school graduates each year, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s campaign says. It would also expose young people to peers of varying backgrounds and reduce divisions.
Similarly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is calling for a 21st-century version of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps to restore America’s parks. John Delaney released his own national service plan that included a Climate Corps and an apprenticeship program for young people to work on infrastructure projects.
Another presidential hopeful, Rep. Seth Moulton, put out a plan that included a proposal for a Federal Green Corps. It’s modeled after the GI Bill and would pay up to $24,000 in tuition or job training for those who worked for a service organization for three years.
New proposals build on work of previous presidents
The United States still officially has a military draft, which men 18 to 25 must register for. Many young people might want to sign up for the military on their own but still want to give to something greater than themselves.
For decades, the nation has been tapping into that service spirit. While benefiting the nation as a whole, members of service organizations have also been able to put food on their table, gain skills and pay for education.
The Civilian Conservation Corps helped restore the nation’s parks, stimulate the Depression-era economy and provide jobs for those out of work. Starting in 1944, the GI Bill funded higher education for a generation of veterans coming back from World War II.
John F. Kennedy famously called on Americans to serve, starting the Peace Corps in 1961. In 1965, his successor Lyndon B. Johnson launched the Volunteers in Service to America program, known as VISTA, as a domestic version of the Peace Corps.
In 1994, AmeriCorps (a network of volunteer programs, of which VISTA is a part) launched with 20,000 members. President George W. Bush expanded it to 75,000 members in 2004.
And in his first term, President Barack Obama signed legislation to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 positions to 250,000 over eight years, but those ambitions never came to fruition. Buttigieg’s proposed expansion would bring AmeriCorps up to what Obama had planned.
Service has many benefits
National service is an idea with champions on both sides of the aisle. In 2015, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote in a CNN opinion piece, “Like many Americans, I believe our country would benefit greatly if we were to unite around a commitment to service.”
With a nation sharply divided on matters of ideology, race, income and other factors, national service problems can become a great equalizer, he argued, getting people to work together who might not otherwise ever meet.
“If I were graduating from high school today, I’d be less likely to have experienced the world alongside someone different from me My high school would be less diverse than it was in 1970,” McChrystal wrote. “I would likely live around people who made just as much money as my parents.”
National service in other countries
Some nations require mandatory military service, including North Korea and Israel, but not every nation is interested in maintaining a large standing army.
French President Emmanuel Macron has championed a universal national service in lieu of a mandatory military draft, which the country abolished in 1997. The program, rolled out this year, would require all French citizens to participate upon turning 16.
National service is a “time to meet others that will be useful and profitable for every young person, and a special opportunity to learn and receive, but also to give and engage, regardless of social background,” according to a statement from the Elysee Palace.
Last month, Conservative Member of Parliament Rory Stewart made a similar national service proposal part of his ultimately unsuccessful pitch to become the UK’s next prime minister.
And in 2016, the European Union launched a European Solidarity Corps that “creates opportunities for young people to volunteer or work in projects that benefit communities and people around Europe.”