Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama's Universal Civilian Service Program

Barack Obama has caused a stir among conservatives with his allusion in a speech back in July to creating "a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded" as the the military. As I have shown, these words surely do not foreshadow a fascist, brown-shirt brigade of partisan political intimidation. They do signify, however, a looming government initiative of great significance.

Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Obama's choice for chief-of-staff, perhaps gives us insight into what his boss has in mind for us. In The Plan: Big Ideas for America (Public Affairs, 2006), he writes,

It's time for a real Patriot Act that brings out the patriot in all of us. We propose universal civilian service for every young American. Under this plan, all Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five will be asked to serve their country by going through three months of basic training, civil defense preparation and community service. ... Here's how it would work. Young people will know that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service. They'll be asked to report for three months of basic civil defense training in their state or community, where they will learn what to do in the event of biochemical, nuclear or conventional attack; how to assist others in an evacuation; how to respond when a levee breaks or we're hit by a natural disaster. These young people will be available to address their communities' most pressing needs (pp.61-62).

I would not dismiss this idea out of hand. Americans face few demands of citizenship, if any. We live in a dangerous world, but we rely upon a few volunteers to make the world safe for our soft complacency. A little civil defense training might be a good thing.

But as for the humanitarian service, asks these questions:

Obama's service plan is just as troubling. He wants to mandate 50 hours of community service per year for middle and high school students. And he's offering a $4,000 federal-funded tuition credit in exchange for 100 hours per year from college students. For most students, the latter will become a mandatory part of getting a degree, as colleges will merely raise their tuition to compensate for the vouchers. So who gets to decide what constitutes "community service"? Who gets to decide which causes and organizations will be credit-worthy, and which ones won't? Something tells me that you'd be more likely to get one of Obama's vouchers by going door to door for one of ACORN's living wage campaigns than, say, volunteering for a libertarian nonprofit organization that advocates against things like government-mandated community service.

I would hope than service through one's church, or through a para-church organization like Youth With A Mission or Campus Crusade for Christ, a summer mission trip for example, would fulfill the requirement. But I suppose we'll be talking about that.

The summer between high school and college is a good time to get the obligation out of the way. Most graduating high school seniors need a maturing experience before college anyway. The $4,000 tuition credit makes up for the lost income the student would have made if he or she had worked all summer. If this were a full time commitment of thirty-five hours a week for twelve weeks, $4,000 works out to about $9.50 an hour. That's reasonable. But if the commitment is only for a total of 50 hours distributed over three months, as indicates, that works out to $80 an hour, a handsome wage indeed, leaving students lots of time to do what they would normally do for summer earnings.

Under such terms, the program is a universal college tuition give-away with a token amount of civic-minded service required in exchange. This is perhaps the link between Emanuel's goals of universal civilian service and universal access to college education regardless of one's ability or the suitability of college education to what one wants to do in life. Granted, $4k will not carry you through a degree program, not even at a public university. But it's another step in the direction of transforming college education into what high school education once was and is supposed to be. Where is the gain in that? Instead of fixing education at the high school level, universal access to college education merely extends the problem into the post-secondary academic world, flooding the college system with unmotivated illiterates even more than it is already.

Do I have it all wrong? I'm working from indirect glimpses into the new administration. In his July speech on Colorado Springs, Obama himself spoke only of volunteerism, expanding AmeriCorps from 75,000 spots to 250,000, doubling the size of the Peace Corps, and expanding USA Freedom Corps. We elected Barack Obama to the White House, not Rahm Emanuel. But as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, it will be wise for citizens to keep this range of ideas in view, and the larger issues they involve, as they emerge from the new administration and take legislative form.

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Jackson said...
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