Monday, February 14, 2005

Service and Benefits for Americans

As anyone who knows me (meaning most of the very few readers of this blog) is probably aware, I'm a big proponent of national service. Of course, I'm biased, since I served in the AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps for a year. But I feel that way because I had an incredibly positive experience in the program, so it's not really a biased argument in the same way it would be if I said people over 6'3" should get tax breaks or something.

(For more on my AmeriCorps experience, read this Salon article I wrote about it.)

A couple of recent articles have contained fascinating proposals that tie national service into expanded benefits from the government.

The first came in the Washington Monthly, in a fascinating article I really can't recommend highly enough about how Veterans' hospitals have become arguably the best health care system in the country. This literally shocked me. While I did figure things were better than they appeared in "Born on the Fourth of July," I didn't think they were great. And philosophically, I never saw the point of them. Why can't veterans just get a voucher to go to a regular hospital, I always figured?

The philosophical question remains, but the article points out that for various reasons having to do with economies of scale, an integrated national network, and patients who stay in the same health care system their whole lives, thus giving it incentives to make them healthy in the long-run to reduce costs, (read the article for full details, please), veterals get better health care than any of us who go to private or local public hospitals. So while the system is shrinking because we have fewer veterans, maybe we shouldn't shrink the system, the article points out. Maybe we should maintain or even expand it and let some of us who aren't veterans join in.

How great would it be to be part of a health care system with hospitals across the country and one that can't drop you because you change jobs or are unemployed? Now maybe we should just be able to buy our way in. But author Philip Longman has an even bolder proposal:

What if we expanded the veterans health-care system and allowed anyone who is either already a vet or who agrees to perform two years of community service a chance to buy in? Indeed, what if we said to young and middle-aged people, if you serve your community and your country, you can make your parents or other loved ones eligible for care in an expanded VHA system?


This is, quite simply, a brilliant idea. And it echoes an op-ed I read in the Boston Globe last month, the core argument of which is the following:

With the creation of a National Service Baby Bond initiative, the benefits of an ownership society would be linked to national service. Here's how it would work: the government would invest $6,000 for every child born in America. As proposed by the New America Foundation, if such a bond accrued interest at a rate of 7 percent, this fund would be worth $20,000 when the child turned 18, and would be worth $45,000 by the age of 30. Additionally, parents and family members would be able to contribute to a child's bond tax free.


In order to collect this bond, young people would have to earn their civic stripes by dedicating a year or two of full-time military or domestic service to America. By engaging in a year of full-time service between the ages of 18 and 30, each citizen would earn access to 50 percent of the bond, and through two years of full-time service the remainder of the bond would become accessible. A young person could choose to use his or her National Service Baby Bond to access the American dream by applying it toward the cost of higher education, the down payment on a home, starting a small business or nonprofit, or establishing an IRA for retirement security.


I love both these ideas for three reasons:
1)They each solve one of our nation's most pressing crises: health care (or lack thereof), and the way huge disparities in wealth create unequal opportunity from birth
2)They fix the problem not through an entitlement, but through a system that rewards national service and treats everyone, rich or poor, the exact same. We thus tie what should be the benefits of being an American citizen, like decent health care and a good shot at the beginning of life, into the responsibility of improving the country, which every citizen should share
3)We also get the benefits of citizen service. In the case of AmeriCorps, we get local fixes to major problems like pollution, poverty, educational disadvantage, etc. I also think military service and the Peace Corps should count, so we would get more people defending our country, which the experience in Iraq is showing we need, and get more citizens doing good work around the world and showing the generous side of America, which I think we desperately need given the feelings of many people around the world for our country.

National service = new benefits for all citizens. In my humble opinion, it should be at the heart of American public policy. I may be representative of nobody else, but I know that if any politician ran for office on a platform like this, I'd support him or her like I never have any candidate before.

PS It's worth noting that both these ideas came, in one way or another, from the New America Foundation.

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