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The need for young people to serve their country is among Barack Obama’s least articulated issues.

All you young people, I want you to know what I’m going to be asking–I’m going to be asking for all of you to serve this country [silence], serve in the military [a lonely whoo!], serve in the Peace Corps [silence], serve in the homeless shelters [silence], serve, in some capacity, for your community [silence], and in return, we will guarantee that every single one of you can afford a college education. [crowd roars].

–Barack Obama, October 1, 2008, La Crosse, WI

The need for young people to serve their country is among Senator Barack Obama’s least articulated issues, and yet it seemed to be the most necessary. The above transcription differed from his prepared notes, which simply outlined his commitment to young people who serve.

Faced with the roaring crowd of college and high school students, he deviated from his notes to speak to them in a manner that was almost pleading. The crowd seemed dumbfounded by a promise that requires action on their part.

It is a strange coincidence that Republican President George Bush and Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama find a common ground on the issue of community service. After all, Obama is planning to sweeten the college tuition pot with $4,000 per year, per student, in exchange for 100 hours of community service. This after Bush’s 2002 call to double the enrollment of the Peace Corps has fallen on largely deaf ears.

In both instances, it remains to be seen whether the American student—really, every American under 30—is truly ready to answer the call. In a weakening American economy, do we want our youth to work only for financial incentive?

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Strangely absent from both Obama’s and Bush’s statements is any reference to AmeriCorps, the domestic community service initiative that provides approximately $4,000 in tuition vouchers in exchange for 10 months of service. AmeriCorps positions also include a nominal stipend and—in some instances—housing. The interest on student loans is also paid during an AmeriCorps volunteer’s service.

The Peace Corps offers even better benefits in return for an international tour. A $6,000 cash award follows the 2-year commitment. Students may also see 15% of Perkins Loans canceled in a year, or as much as 70% canceled by three and four years of service. This comes in addition to a living stipend “…that enables [volunteers] to live in a manner similar to the local people in their community.”

The U.S. Army pledges an enlistment bonus ranging from $25,000 for all jobs, to over $51,000 for certain specialties on a 3-year enlistment. This is in addition to tuition reimbursement, a steady paycheck, and housing stipend for those with a spouse and/or children.

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Our government leaders’ policies seem to imply that the problem lies with a lack of incentive, but current initiatives suggest otherwise. Sign-on bonuses, tuition reimbursement and monthly stipends are all tangible rewards built into the myriad of youth-oriented federal service programs. Are our leaders fighting an uphill battle with apathetic youth, or are they simply fighting the wrong battle?

Military and Peace Corps enrollment continues to dwindle in spite of increased incentives. Since its inception under Democratic President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps has seen a drop from approximately 16,000 members annually to just half that number.

Military recruiters have been struggling to not only bring in new recruits, but to keep the ones who have already signed up. Even organizations such as volunteer fire departments all over the United States are suffering from rapidly declining numbers. Food banks, such as the Rio Grande Valley, can barely muster donations much less the labor needed to package and deliver them.

The growing number of youth who are speaking out suggests that a desire for cash, coupled with youthful naivete, is what is causing this rift. Young men like James “Corey” Glass, a former California National Guardsman who abandoned his unit in Iraq and sought asylum in Canada, speak of an innocence crushed by the half-truths of the government.

“I signed up to defend people and do humanitarian work, like filling sandbags if there’s a hurricane,” said Glass in a May 21, 2008 media conference. “I had no conception that I would be deployed to fight on foreign shores.”

With many non-military organizations available to “defend people and fill sandbags,” Glass’s comments seem disingenuous at best. Such antics convey the image of youth who only serve as much as their expectations will allow.

Are the youth truly turning away from community service? Not if you listen to the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that says volunteering among college students has grown more than 20% between 2002 and 2007. This seems to be in stark contrast to the falling rates seen across federal programs.

What’s most telling is that the study finds a growing trend of “episodic” volunteering, where students are participating in different projects for less than two weeks at a time. This may suggest something bigger—that today’s youth may not even be looking for financial gain, but rather for an opportunity to make a difference.

But demanding a short term emotional benefit may turn out to be more selfish than demanding compensation. Many programs have suffered from a lack of long-term dedicated volunteers who bring skills and expertise not found in short-term volunteers.

Volunteer programs such as Casa Do Caminho, demand six months from their volunteers. Anything less, and the expenses incurred by the organization–which only include simple housing, a ride from the airport, and meals–fail to outweigh the gains.

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While both presidential candidates have well-argued plans to tap energy resources from coal to switchgrass, neither seem to have a plan to tap the renewable resources of youth. It’s clear that this generation wants to make as big a difference as any generation prior, yet all of our leaders want to relegate these efforts to a simple bid to get college loans forgiven.

As Obama asks the youth of the greater La Crosse area to serve, I’m left feeling embarrassed. The people with the courage to serve without incentive seem to be a dwindling minority in a time where we need them to be the majority.

It’s clear from their silence that the youth will not hear the call to service coming from even the most personable of federal legislators. The next generation needs to hear that call from those who have served—those who have recently given their time to the Peace Corps, the armed forces, and to volunteer organizations at home and abroad. They need young leaders to demonstrate just how much of a reward virtue can be.

No president can single-handedly repair the damage that has been done to our national interests, foreign and domestic. We need articulate young people to bring critical thinking to pockets of dangerously narrow-minded ideologies. And in a struggling economy, we need them do it with an incentive that goes beyond money.

What this crisis has taught us is that at the end of the day, there is no real separation between Main Street and Wall Street. There is only the road we’re traveling on as Americans – and we will rise or fall on that journey as one nation, as one people.

–Barack Obama, October 1, 2008, La Crosse, WI

Can we afford to sit lazily in the back, staring out the window? Or are we going to pitch in for gas or offer to take a shift at the wheel?

Activism + Politics


About The Author

Jacob Bielanski

Jacob Bielanski is a freelance journalist based in Wisconsin. His travels have taken him through Western Europe, Central America and Texas.

  • Julie

    Jacob- This article was an astute analysis of the concept of public service. It's a word we throw around easily, but you just cut through the rhetoric and got to the heart of the matter. Thanks.

  • Eva

    Great stuff, Jacob. The data on "episodic" volunteering is fascinating – really gets to the heart of the debate, in the travel world, over "voluntourism" and how beneficial it is, how much better it could be, and how much of it is about the feelings of the person volunteering.

  • Michael_Melton

    I think it has less to do with youth losing interest in the programs, and more to do with outdated programs not speaking to the youth. Most volunteer programs try to stress how you can change the world, but kids are smart enough to realize they can't change that much in the confines of a federal program. Instead, they should be stressing how the programs change the lives of the people volunteering. I've chatted with many people who have participated in Peace Corps, and the common belief seems to be that they didn't change the world that much…rather, it was the world that changed them. The youth of today are too smart to tempt with merely monetary gains…they can get that working at Starbucks. Instead, they need to be convinced that their service will not only help the world, but give them some perspective in life.

  • Alicia

    I agree with Michael_Melton, but I also have seen first-hand that there exists another component. The intense competition for top-tier university acceptance, internships, and jobs puts young people's time at a premium. If what you're doing isn't directly related to your career of choice, then you're not building valuable résumé experience and are at a disadvantage in the job hunt. Volunteer opportunities in, for example, tech (IT, computer science, computer engineering) are fewer, less publicized, and tend to be on a local level–so they often vary widely in scope, commitment, organization, funding. To use some of the examples from the article… spending two years in the Peace Corps, volunteer firefighting, building houses, packaging and handing out food, and other volunteer positions predominantly consist of physical labor or simple/repetitive tasks. Those services are necessary, worthwhile, and rewarding for those involved, but unless it ties in to your field, employers favor candidates who spent that time in the industry. Taking significant time away from one's profession is very risky when the markets are tight and job listings require 3+ years of experience in a technology that's barely existed that long. And it's not just tech; research sciences, finance, business, etc, are the same way. A job is required to get experience, but experience is required to get the job. The youth of today do seek opportunities (paid and volunteer) that will give them perspective in life, help the world, and change their own lives. But it too often comes down to a choice between two years in the Peace Corps then coming home jobless, or spending those two years building work experience and developing skills/experience in their career to have a better life. In countries like England where taking a gap year for travel or volunteer work is expected, employers look more favorably upon that time spent away from their careers.

  • Olivebeard

    A fantastic point, Michael. I would contend that those same chats w/ Peace Corps volunteers are the kind of "straight talk" that our next wave of High School Grads needs–talks that confirm to them that the inner journey is that much more powerful that the external impact of their service.

  • olivebeard

    Perhaps that's another societal component to this–a rampant free-market that deprives our youth of the freedom to be…well, youthful. I've certainly been there, though–the whole experience-needed-to-get-the-job-but-need-a-job-to-get-experience Catch-22. I will say this, though: after almost 7 years of working my ass off (lots of low-pay/free labor), I discovered that I didn't really want the money as bad as I wanted to the freedom. As of September, my status as a Cisco Certified Networking Associate (CCNA) is expired (after I worked my ass off to get it) and I honestly couldn't care less. I feel as if I wasted a lot of my time trying to create a "good" life, when the definition of "good" had less to do with money and more to do with karma.

  • Bryant Knight

    I disagree with the very foundation of Obama's argument on this issue, and Jacob's closely follows Obama's. Why does Obama seem to imply that "community service" inherently means participation in government programs? Can young people not serve their community by taking jobs in the private market? He doesn't even clearly discuss the option of doing volunteer work with private groups like churches or the Salvation Army. Much like Bush, Obama is more concerned with promoting massive extra-Constitutional federal intervention, but he cites other motives (like serving the community, or in Bush's case it would be promoting democracy or fighting terrorism) to mask and justify the larger goal. Beyond that, Jacob's article is very interesting, but he overlooks this entire side of the argument. Community service does not necessarily mean that one must participate in an un-Constitutional (and therefore illegal), often bureaucratic, federally organized program.

  • Greg

    Uh oh…I feel a soapbox moment coming on….run! James Glass makes me throw up in my mouth. Sure, not everyone is expected to serve or fight – thank goodness we don't live in a country where military service is mandatory – but if you do make that personal decision and go through the long and arduous process of signing all the enlistment contracts, its made pretty clear over and over again what you are getting yourself into. Even the average 8 year old would understand the risks of joining the ARMY – even if it is the National Guard. If James had researched his history he would have seen the the National Guard has been deployed in WW2, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf – all that on top of filling sandbags and doing community service at home. Basically, he wanted his free stuff (tuition) then ran to Canada when someone expected him to pay up.

  • worklessplaymore

    I would love nothing more than to volunteer (especially abroad) for an extended period of time. The problem is, I can't afford to quit my job… an action required if I'm to commit to any stint longer than the standard lousy 2 wks vacation I get a year. Take a look at It's a movement to increase our mandatory vacation time here in the USA. If I had 4 wks vaca, and was allowed to take it all at once, I'd hop on a plane tomorrow to volunteer abroad.

  • Jay

    I wish we did live in a country where everyone was required to serve.

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