A new route to universal national service and economic fairness.
Of course, the GI Bill—which serves as a basic model for the baby bond idea—wasn’t cheap in the short term either. No serious investment in building social capital on a national scale comes cheap. The Civilian Conservation Corps was also expensive—but it worked, in economic as well as social terms. Just like the GI Bill and the CCC, the benefits of a baby bond/national service program would more than offset its costs over time. We already pay for prison and drug-related debilities that stem from poisonous inner-city and poor rural environments. We do not have to tolerate those financial and social costs. If we look at all the cost factors involved over the long term, a baby bond program would be an overall economic winner. As it is, every dollar spent on AmeriCorps volunteers pays back roughly two dollars in services rendered.
Besides, costs are relative. We know how many Americans will turn eighteen in any given year—around 4.4 million—and we can roughly estimate program costs. If we do that math, two things become clear: first, the United States, the wealthiest mass society in history, can afford the baby bond program; second, the costs are almost trivial compared to, say, the wars of choice we have fought over the past decade, not to mention the initial costs of the financial bailouts of the mid-2000s.
Note, too, that baby bond service would not be compulsory, and there would be no penalty for demurral. Government would incur no cost in tracking down truants and dodgers. If a person did not wish to do national service, the bond money would go back into the general pool to earn interest, pay for program operations, and help others. But once a culture of service was created, the opt-out rate would probably be relatively small, and would certainly decrease as the program got established.
Clearly, much more could be said about how this program would work and what the main challenges and benefits would be. Intervening in the negative social patterns in our inner cities, for example, shouldn’t wait until our young people turn eighteen; supplementary programs would have to be devised. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, 15 percent of our American high schools—about 2,000 institutions—produce the vast majority of dropouts; baby bonders serving in these so-called dropout factories would surely make an enormous difference.
And we can’t wait eighteen years from the passage of a bill to graduate our first baby bond class. We would have to devise ways to accelerate the program between now and 2031. Based on the already existing infrastructure of AmeriCorps and similar service organizations, surely we can find ways to scale up in the short term.
The patterns of undergraduate university life, too, would be altered as significant numbers of high school graduates performed national service instead of entering college at age eighteen or nineteen. But does anyone think it would be a tragedy for our young people to go to college a year or two later than most do now—and, likely, with service and life experience under their belt? This would likely benefit the vast majority of our kids and colleges. And universities may change their practices fairly dramatically, through technology-driven innovation, in the next few decades anyway. Integrating these educational improvements with a cadre of national service graduates would surely make the university experience more meaningful for many students—and benefit the larger American society, as well.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.