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Bending the arc toward national service

On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed mandatory “national service” for young people between the ages of 18 and 21. They could either join the military for a short stint or be engaged in various civic causes. The main purpose: Help France overcome its social divisions and nurture patriotism. The French military, which last saw forced conscription in 1997, might also see a boost in recruits.

In Canada, meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last month that he is setting up a Canada Service Corps that will encourage – not force – young people between ages 15 and 30 to volunteer. One incentive: Small grants will be given to individuals who propose worthy projects in community service.

A good measure of a nation’s civic health is how many people work for the public good. Another is how many opportunities are created for people to serve. In many Western democracies, the decline in trust of institutions – and in each other – has resulted in a drop in public service and volunteering.

The proposals in France and Canada are examples of ways to counter this trend. In the United States, meanwhile, the rate of volunteering among Americans has been falling since 2005. It went up after the terrorist attacks of 2001. And last year, a temporary wave of volunteers went into places hit by hurricanes, such as Houston and Puerto Rico. But the US still struggles to maintain the kind of public service that helps young people to bond to the nation and to others of different backgrounds. National service can provide some of the heat beneath the country’s “melting pot.”

The US still has a wide range of private and public institutions that welcome volunteers. Almost every president since John Kennedy has created an agency for public service, from the Peace Corps to Vista to AmeriCorps to Senior Corps. Yet many of the agencies do not have enough budget to welcome all volunteers. Congress keeps funding them while President Trump proposes to cut them – even though he once said there was “something beautiful” about national service. Some lawmakers have introduced bills to expand opportunities for such service.

The US still has a strong core of people who volunteer for causes. To build on that tradition, Congress set up an 11-member panel in 2017 called the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. It has just begun the work of finding ways to inspire young people to serve the country in some way. Its recommendations are due in 2020.

Civic health in a democracy comes in many forms, from voting to paying taxes to volunteering. Encouraging young people to spend time in some sort of service can help build a solid basis for unity and progress. Service to others is a reflection of a higher good. Each country may do it differently. But at least many are still trying.

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