Americans agree on very little. That is why the results of a recent poll about mandatory national service were both surprising and encouraging.
It turns out that more than two-thirds of Americans support a program of mandatory national service for all 18-22 year-olds. I know this because I recently sponsored a survey on the subject.
I have been interested in national service for many years and learned a while back that people have a hard time reacting to the idea until presented with a concrete description of a plan — even in its sketchiest form. Starting about five years ago, I crafted a description of a hypothetical mandatory national program and commissioned a reputable, non-partisan polling company to field a survey.
The program description and question posed was this: “Would you support or oppose the following proposal? All citizens and permanent residents (Green Card holders) will be required to participate in an 18-month National Service program. Service can be started any time between an individual’s 18th [and] 22nd birthday. Service shall include healthcare assistance, infrastructure/environmental repair, early childhood education programs, eldercare assistance, or military service. Participation in the military option shall be voluntary. National service participants shall receive free communal room, board, and a subsistence allowance. Participants shall receive $10,000 upon successful completion of their service. People who fail to successfully complete their National Service obligation shall not be eligible for any Federal student loan or mortgage guarantee program.”
Today, fully 75 percent of all young people aged 18-24 — those in the group most affected by the proposal — support that idea. People slightly older (25-37) support it even more: 80 percent are in favor. Older adults are also in favor. Sixty-two percent of people 38-44 — the largest group of parents of those expected to serve favor it, and 56 percent of people 45-64 are in support as well. No demographic reflected a majority in opposition.
The reasons people gave are not surprising. Sixty-five percent of all those polled think the country is too divided and would benefit from a common experience. Those who support mandatory national service are even more adamant on this point. A similar percentage believes that everyone has an obligation to contribute to the common good. The only “surprise“ I saw in the polling data is that a slightly smaller percentage (60 percent) of people believe they would benefit from working with people unlike themselves.
Mandatory national service has far more support than a return to a military draft. Just 20 percent of Americans support the draft, according to the most recent Roper poll on the subject. Yet all of the armed services continue to face serious recruiting problems, with the Army facing its worst shortfalls in five decades.
So, while this particular national service proposal does not necessarily envision military service, it is very likely that young people faced with the knowledge that they will have to serve in some capacity will voluntarily choose a military option.
The American electorate agrees about very little. That a supermajority agrees that both the nation and individuals would benefit from a program of mandatory national service could be — to modify Winston Churchill’s words a bit — the beginning of the beginning. Such an initiative won’t solve the many problems that plague and divide us. But it would help provide some needed common ground to build on.
Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen in New York. He is a former member of the Board of Directors of the United States Naval Institute.
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