Challenging youth

SEN. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts recently called for ``new ideas'' for helping to meet the needs of poor people. The possible presidential contender in 1988 urged ``[T]hose of us who care about domestic progress'' to do ``more with less. . . . We cannot and should not depend on higher tax revenues'' to ``redeem'' costly government programs. Some weeks before the Kennedy speech, another potential Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, Sen. Gary Hart, made a forceful plea for a ``New Patriotism'' that would ``challenge'' America's young people to perform public service. The Colorado senator suggested that a system of mandatory national service would remind our youth of their ``obligation'' to serve the country.

It seems to me there ought to be a way to merge these two worthwhile proposals. What better -- and inexpensive -- way to meet social needs than to rely upon the energy and initiative of young Americans?

The idea of harnessing the will to serve is not new, having first been articulated by American philosopher William James around the turn of the century. James called for a system of national service, dubbing the rigors of performing useful conservation and human-service work the ``moral equivalent of war.'' In the mid-1960s, the Johnson administration gave the concept of national service more than passing attention. More recently, legislation has been introduced in the Congress proposing varying forms of voluntary -- or even mandatory -- national service.

There are two major stumbling blocks in the way of any large-scale program of national youth service.

The first challenge is obviously that of cost. How much of a burden will national service be for taxpayers already straining to shoulder massive federal budget deficits and a bloated national debt?

The other problem is the general opposition of United States military manpower planners. The Pentagon has been cool to the idea of national service because it is viewed as a program that competes with the military for a limited pool of potential recruits. Demographic changes in American society show a gradual reduction in the 18- to 21-year-old age group. In 1980, for example, 4.2 million Americans turned 18. In 1985 that number had shrunk to 3.6 million.

We can design a national-service program that heeds the concerns of military recruiters, faces the reality of budget austerity, and yet succeeds in providing new opportunities and incentives for Americans to serve.

Here's one ``new idea'' that costs nothing. We should create a call-up order for a future draft that gives deferment priorities to those who have completed at least one year of public service.

Other incentives to stimulate volunteer service might include:

GI Bill education benefits for those who complete two years of military service.

``National service'' educational loans for those who complete one year of civilian service. This loan program could replace in part some of the existing student grants and loans, college aid that is currently available regardless of one's service record.

Some type of job voucher system for those who volunteer for military or civilian service. Employment vouchers would give service veterans a leg up in the job market.

Whatever mix of incentives is finally decided upon, the key principle is to reduce government assistance for those who have not served and to increase certain federal benefits for those who do serve. Military service should carry with it decidedly higher benefits, commensurate with the markedly higher risks that attend military service.

Senators Kennedy and Hart deserve credit for raising the issues of ``more-for-less'' government and national service. If we combine the fundamental elements of these proposals, I believe we will be able to infuse young people with a new spirit of patriotism, while at the same time meeting basic social and military needs through voluntary service. Surely making an attempt in this direction is worth a try.

Matthew Cossolotto is a legislative aide in the US House of Representatives.

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