Long after his political career had ended, the unsuccessful presidential candidate George Romney, father of the unsuccessful Republican candidate Mitt, became an advocate for national service. He often said that “national service should be as visible as the Post Office.” George Romney wanted national service in various forms—not just military service, but also elder care, child care, conservation of natural resources, and rebuilding of the national infrastructure—to become part of our culture, integral to the American way of life. I think it’s time to take another look at this idea, which could revitalize the country and relieve the economic pressure on its youth.

Everyone knows there was compulsory military service during the Second World War. In exchange for each month spent in the military, veterans of that war were entitled to two months of higher or vocational education—tuition, fees, and books—in independent or public institutions of their choice, paid for by the federal government. This was the so-called GI Bill of Rights, enacted into law because members of Congress feared that there would be widespread unemployment when the veterans of World War II retuned to civilian life. It turned out to be the greatest investment in human capital ever made in this country. And the return to Treasury—the higher taxes paid because of the higher incomes earned as a result of a more educated workforce—has been enormous. In effect, the program proved over the long run to be self-financing.

Young men between eighteen and twenty-six years of age had no choice. If they were physically and mentally fit, they had to serve. It was a national emergency. Two words provided the rationale for compulsory service: Pearl Harbor. It would take a lot more than two words to come up with a rationale for a compulsory national-service program today, but the case should at least be made.

If a compulsory two-year national-service law were applicable now to all American men and women between the ages of eighteen and twenty, and if the areas of service included nonmilitary opportunities like tutoring low-income children, cleaning up neglected urban neighborhoods, and participating in conservation projects, it would immediately have a major impact on the country.

But another good reason for compelling national service is the evident predicament of so many young people today, who are faced with the exorbitant cost of higher education and poor job prospects. In many cases, this leads to drift and a sense of purposelessness. Their parents see it; those who counsel them in high school or advise them in college see it. The data collected on drug abuse, crime, and youth suicide all point to the problem. Does it amount to a national emergency? I think it does.

After World War II many veterans took advantage of educational opportunities that prepared them for productive careers. They gained maturity and a sense of purpose during their service years. The nation benefited not only from their service but as much or even more from their subsequent careers, made all the more productive thanks to education gained under the GI Bill. Of course, other things helped fuel postwar economic growth, but the GI Bill played a big role.

President Barack Obama should ask his domestic policy advisers to take a good look at national service. He and Congress will no doubt be preoccupied with the challenge of reducing the nation’s long-term debt. Still, it would be wise for him to ask a select few policy advisers to compute the historic cost and the return on investment associated with the GI Bill, if for no other reason than to anticipate the criticism that would certainly be voiced about the cost of a new national-service program. The president has often spoken of the importance of investing in programs that will make the U.S. economy more competitive in the decades to come. Surely, national service is one such program.

The president’s advisers could figure out how to arrange training and appropriate stipends for inductees into a national-service program and design private-public partnerships that would employ the inductees to meet national needs. They could work out the types and terms of postservice educational benefits, to which every service member would have a claim. These benefits would help ease the crippling burden of student debt, which is leading even people with good jobs to wait many years before buying a home or starting a family.

The nation has serious needs that neither the market nor current public programs are meeting: a neglected infrastructure, a growing population of retirees, a public-education system that is failing children from low-income families. The nation also has a growing number of unemployed young adults who could help solve these problems if only we asked them to—and made it worth their while. The country needs what young people offer; young people need what the country could offer. This is a coincidence too important to ignore.

Published in the June 14, 2013 issue: 

William J. Byron, SJ, is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He is an Army veteran of World War II and received his college education on the GI Bill.

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