Democrats’ National Service Plans Put a Price on Debt Forgiveness

When presidential hopeful Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) unveiled his call to national service back in May, the former Marine Corps officer was met with more criticism than he bargained for.

In a crowded 2020 candidate race with hot-button issues such as universal health care, immigration reform and erasing student loan debt on the line, how could a plan modeled loosely after the G.I. Bill sway the hearts of voters when so much else is at stake?

According to the policy’s official description on Moulton’s website, this national service education guarantee is “designed to build on its success in fostering a culture of service to this country we love. Because if you invest in America, we should invest in you.”

To foster this culture, Moulton goes on to lay out a five-point plan, the first of which is a large-scale recruitment effort targeting young Americans aged 17-24 to enlist in the military or civil service programs in exchange for some form of debt forgiveness. This is expanded upon in point number two:

Establish an education benefit that will provide 60% of the cost of in-state tuition, or a job-training benefit of up to $14,000, for a one year commitment; a benefit of 80%, or a job-training benefit of up to $19,000, for a two year commitment; and a benefit of 100% of in-state tuition or $24,000 in training, for a three year commitment.

Points three, four and five include the creation of the “Federal Green Corps,” a new service organization dedicated to tackling climate change and protecting the environment; creating a national service candidate position; and expanding the Corporation for National and Community Service.

While the proposal is seemingly well-intentioned, many took issue with Moulton’s plan, from its pro-imperialist sentiment, to, of course, the fact that a comprehensive price tag for how much this would cost to implement was left out of the five points.

Moulton’s plan never gained much traction outside of a few Twitter memes and one-off news articles, but national service came into the spotlight once again after South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced his plan for something similar.

Buttigieg, who served in the Navy Reserve and was deployed to Afghanistan, rolled out what he calls “a new call to service” while on the campaign trail in Iowa. The proposal, which was recently launched on Buttigieg’s campaign site, would encourage young Americans to participate in both civilian service and military roles with three distinct initiatives.

The first “key effort” is an initiative to increase paid service opportunities from 75,000 to 250,000 by funding the Serve America Act, which will target paid service fellowships to high school, community college, vocational school, historically Black colleges and universities, and minority service institution students. Those who perform a year of service under Buttigieg’s plan would be credited under the Public Loan Forgiveness Program.

The second initiative under Buttigieg’s plan would be to create competitive grant funding in order to create “ecosystems of service around regional issues.” This funding would be given to locations across the country as an incentive to create more service opportunities, prioritizing rural communities and communities of color. This initiative is modeled after Cities of Service, from which Buttigieg received $25,000 for home repairs in South Bend.

Finally, the third initiative, “service at scale,” is a long-term plan to quadruple service opportunities to 1 million high school graduates. Buttigieg also promises to create positions in his cabinet to ensure this process runs smoothly, similar to one of Moulton’s five points.

Unlike Moulton, though, Buttigieg’s spokeswoman gave a ballpark number for how much this would cost if implemented, hovering somewhere around $20 billion over 10 years.

Moulton actually commended Buttigieg’s plan on Twitter, but encouraged him and other candidates to “go bigger” in terms of a larger-scale recruitment effort. It is also worth noting that presidential candidate Rep. John Delaney (D-Maryland) has proposed a national service plan with emphasis on climate reform, but unlike Moulton and Buttigieg, has not proposed any form of debt forgiveness in exchange for commitment.

With so much discourse surrounding the upcoming 2020 election on various issues, proposals regarding national service shouldn’t be what helps a candidate’s electability.

The creation of national service guarantees and proposals are a tough sell for a candidate, especially when observing how current institutions of service are functioning. In both military and civil service, a policy like Moulton’s or Buttigieg’s would have to address the possibility of adding more “recruits” into a system that is riddled with unfixed problems, including abuse and discrimination, as well as constant delays in veteran benefits.

In the case of the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is critically understaffed, and veterans struggle heavily with issues such as mental health and substance abuse. In terms of federal agencies, the VA ranks dead last in favorability. With this type of faulty infrastructure, it would be difficult for any incoming president to account for these issues while also trying to encourage more young Americans to serve.

The reputation does not fare much better with service organizations that fall under the Corporation for National and Community Service, such as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and FEMA Corps. AmeriCorps, known in the past for providing less than livable wages to those who work in the nonprofit sector, had a recent controversy in which their workers had to work without compensation despite the fact that they are barred from getting a second job, and already struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, such programs with subminimum wages are already out of the question for people without a financial support network.

Military service and national service are not the “easy” way out — in fact, their respective institutions provide way more complications and challenges than benefits. Service plans, while well-intentioned, fundamentally promote the idea that young Americans have to struggle in exchange for benefits that they may not receive unless these broken systems are corrected first. However, it seems that the candidates proposing these plans don’t view service as an obstacle, but rather, a cornerstone of American culture.

Buttigieg, when speaking about his time in Afghanistan, said, “I believe that national service is something we need to create more opportunities for here at home, and we need to learn from all of the ways for prior generations military service was a leveler and equalizer, something that made it possible for people like a young John F. Kennedy or George H.W. Bush to learn how to relate on more or less equal terms of factory workers in places like Indiana,” telling CNN that “it is unfortunate that we lost that.”

Buttigieg even went so far as to say that he would like it to be a social norm for every American to participate in one year of service after they turn 18, according to an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Moulton has also tackled other military-related issues on the campaign trail, advocating for better mental health services for veterans and those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In terms of campaign strategy, one reason for an investment into these policies could boil down to the “rally-‘round-the-flag,” effect, a term used by political scientists to describe the way that groups unify in the case of common threats. In U.S. history, this has been reflected in the surge of popularity for a president when the nation is involved in some sort of international or war-time crisis.

Moulton and Buttigieg, both candidates with military experience in a relatively unprecedented time when both major candidates in the last two presidential races have had none, may be using this to play to their strength. In some cases, it’s working; some veterans on Twitter have come out in support of these service plans.

Additionally, these reformist proposals also serve as an alternative to more radical proposals such as free college tuition or cancellation of student loan debt. With college tuition increasing exponentially and rising interest in college alternatives such as trade or vocational school, several candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) have advocated for plans to alleviate these burdens by eliminating the cost all together.

It is worth noting that aside from mandatory drafts, military service has been strictly voluntary. This is somewhat attributed to the passing of the G.I. bill, which in its most recent form, provides up to $20,000 of tuition money per year for those who served to pursue a degree. In fact, according to a Pew Research Survey, 75 percent of veterans who enlisted did so to receive educational benefits. With the possibility of free college on the horizon, it is safe to say that the number of those enlisting in the military could decrease if they are presented with other options.

Buttigieg has publicly said that he opposes universal free college, and Moulton has not taken a bold stance for or against the issue. With military recruitment efforts grinding to a halt, it is likely that Moulton and Buttigieg are playing to a more familiar ideology for Democrats in the middle: rather than higher education being free, you have to give something — maybe even your life — to earn it.