Regarding the concept of mandatory youth service, Richard Manning and David Battey are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
“I love the overall concept of it,” said Battey, the founder and president of Kansas City-based Youth Volunteer Corps. “On a general level, I’ve always thought the concept was very good, and I can see so many benefits for requiring young people to do service.”
Manning, vice president of public policy and communications at the Fairfax, Va.- headquartered Americans for Limited Government, finds numerous faults with the concept, however. “It would be detrimental to both young Americans and the country as a whole,” he said. “Mandatory government service will only have one impact: It will delay young adults’ entry into the productive world in an attempt to teach them that government service is more important than pursuing their own ambitions.”
As a practice, however, both individuals share similar outlooks on the prospects of federally-mandated youth service.
“I fully embrace voluntary community service,” Manning stated. “Government-directed community service, however, is not the same thing, because I am not choosing the action that I take, but instead am being forced into doing something that doesn’t maximize my gifts and skills.”
Battey offered similar sentiments. “Something that is forced upon you changes the dynamic of it dramatically,” he said. “I think it’s much better to encourage someone, and have them answer the challenge to serve, as opposed to being mandated to serve.”
In 1987, Battey founded the Youth Volunteers Corps (YVC) in Kansas City, Mo. A quarter century later, an estimated 17,000 young people, ages 11 through 18, participate in their team-based, youth service opportunities annually. He estimates that, since the nonprofit’s founding, more than 270,000 young people have participated in YVC programming, which has expanded to locales as diverse as Georgia, New Mexico and even Alberta, Canada.
The idea of compulsory, national youth service is something Battey knows well. As a student at Williams College in 1985, the topic was his thesis subject. “I looked quite a bit at the issue of whether we should make youth service mandatory for all young people in America,” he stated. “I do feel like, more than ever, we need to offer opportunities to young people because of our horrible situation with youth unemployment.”
As a concept, Battey believes there are two major benefits that would arise from mandated youth service. A large cadre of enthusiastic, energetic young people, he said, would make remedying things like dropout rates and environmental issues much easier. He also believes that mandated youth service may give young people a chance to explore their country, which could change their perspectives on a host of matters and issues. “Doing something like that would change the trajectory of hundreds of thousands of young people, and how involved they would be in their communities,” Battey said.
“Having that kind of manpower,” he continued, “could help us solve a lot of problems.”
Manning said mandated youth service, as a concept, is designed to ennoble government functions over private-sector production.
“I am highly skeptical of giving the government the capacity to claim two years of its citizens’ adult life as its own,” he said.
“Most of the great discoveries and companies were done by people in their late teens and 20s, because during this time, people haven’t learned all the things that can’t be done, so they accomplish the impossible,” Manning stated. “Would our country be better off if Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg had been shuttled away from their silly little computers to do government service?”
Regarding the execution of a mandatory national service program, Battey has several qualms. “Is there enough service for them to do that is high-quality and rewarding and challenging for them?” he asked. “Will the agencies and nonprofit organizations [have] the manpower to be able to supervise and oversee such a massive program? Is the federal government ready to spend the kind of money it would entail to require that type of program?”
With those details in mind, Battey said it would be much easier to focus on encouraging private-sector volunteering, with the goal of driving up youth participation numbers — a potential pathway, he believes, toward required federal services.
“Let’s take some steps before that, and look at the issues after we have hundreds of thousands of young people serving in different programs,” he stated.
An Education Solution, or Hassle?
Battey said that a large number of the youth involved in YVC services had already provided community services as part of mandated school-district requirements or national honor society policies. In some instances, he said that children in such programs struggle — sometimes, because they are not properly trained, and others, because the service programs are poorly constructed.
“I’ve seen a number of mandated programs not put any emphasis on quality,” he said. “And if that service is not done properly, studies have shown that can actually cause a negative reaction in a young person, and a negative outlook on volunteerism.”
For mandated high school and middle school programs to prove successful, Battey said coordination between individual schools and school districts is essential. And while he does not believe that such programs require a vast amount of funding, building a high-quality program would entail some considerable expenditures.
“Quality costs money,” he stated. “I am against doing it if you’re not going to put the resources into it that will make it a successful mandated service program.”
Mandated government service as a means for students to pay off student loans, however, is a proposal that Battey fully supports. “I am in favor of programs that provide the incentive for young people to do services [to receive] a government benefit,” he said. “Perhaps if you do a year of AmeriCorps services, you receive an education stipend to help you pay off your student loans or pay for future college or graduate school.”
Manning, however, is less optimistic about the hypothetical repayment plan. “Before you go down the path of wanting this to be a way to waive college loan debt, think about the ultimate unfairness of that proposal,” he said. Under the plan, the college debt burden would be shifted toward individuals who do not attend college — a population, he said, that generally has lower earning potential than the people they would be subsidizing. “Talk about class warfare,” he added.
Although Battey does not have an estimate of just how expensive a hypothetical national program may be, he does believe it would come with a hefty price tag. “To do it well would be expensive,” Battey said. “I think AmeriCorps is a great return on investment, [but] to do that on a national scale, though, I don’t know.”
Considering the current political and budgetary will in Washington, Battey said a program that massive is unlikely to be implemented by any level of government. “You might get a lot more benefits than costs, but the fact of the matter is,” he stated, “I cannot imagine, right now at least, a government entity putting up anywhere near the funding that would be necessary to make a mandatory service program successful.”
Even so, Battey said non-mandatory youth services still have a greater return on investment than conscripted programs. “I also think it has the positive of challenging as opposed to forcing,” he added.
“I don’t know the government costs, as a lot depends upon whether this is done in lieu of paying back school loans,” Manning said. “Assuming that there is not school loan tradeoff, and it is a straight paycheck situation, the economic cost of moving a generation’s entry into the workforce back two years is difficult to calculate.”
Additionally, Manning said mandated government service would similarly delay housing sales and put a dent in national automobile purchases. Furthermore, he asserted that two-year stints in government services would damage an individual’s long-term earning potential, as well as delay his or her capacity to start a family or become fully involved in the U.S. economy.
Telling a young person that he or she cannot pursue life goals due to conscripted government service obligations, Manning said, is antithetical to his belief in “limited government principles.” He said mandated service changes a young person’s ideology, primarily by altering one’s perceptions of the private sector — to become a person who sees more value in redistributing wealth than producing it in the marketplace.
“There is simply no valid argument in a country based upon the precept that the government serves the will of the people that the same government should claim sovereignty over the lives of its citizens,” Manning concluded. “[To deny] them their basic freedom to engage in labor based upon their skills, ability and interest rather than that which is deemed appropriate by someone in D.C.”
Although Battey is a proponent of youth services, and would love to see a larger overall proportion of the nation’s youth participating in community programs, he said that, at the current, mandated national prospects are unrealistic. However, he does not believe that required youth services are completely out of the question, pending the nation reaches a “tipping point” where political will intersects with an established community services infrastructure, propped up by a large percentage of the national youth population.
“Wow, we’re getting 60 percent of our young people to do a significant term of service,” he conjectured. “Why not consider going from 60 percent to 100 percent?”
“At that time, I would be willing to look at the issues around that,” he concluded. “But at the meantime, I think there’s a lot to be gained from [non-mandatory] cost-effective service programs and [providing youth] a wide variety of offerings.”