It's time to look closely at public service

DAN RODRICKS

December 01, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

What this nation needs is a good rap-country-rock song (the ultimate in crossover music) about public service, enhanced by a hot music video featuring jump-cuts of JFK, old Peace Corps footage and sound bites from Bill Clinton's stump speeches.

The song and video should be ready for January launch, timed with Clinton's inauguration to build on the surging enthusiasm of the 20-something crowd. This group is primed for public service. Clinton is the first president since John Kennedy willing and able to turn them on to it. There couldn't be a better time for it, either.

The Cold War is over, and so are the '80s, with their greedy TC Get-Mine sensibilities. Local and state governments are scraping for ways to keep basic human service programs going. College graduates are wandering around, looking for direction, wondering what to do with their lives. Their parents wish they had help paying tuition. Here's Clinton -- the personification of public service -- making it the fifth of his five major priorities.

Clinton's best campaign rhetoric was about public service as a way for young Americans to pay off federal student loans. And that aspect of his pitch received the most energetic responses from crowds everywhere.

It's a good idea, and we all know it. The country needs help in a bad way and in almost every way.

I'll gladly help foot the tuition for a nursing school student if she'll give 2,000 hours as a visiting nurse in a poor Baltimore neighborhood or in an under-served area of rural Maryland.

I'll happily put some dollars into a student's college loan if, after graduation, he helps run an adult literacy program in a community center somewhere.

If a kid gets out of high school with no ambition for college, I'll support a government that pays him, say, $15,000 for two years while he learns to install windows in dilapidated homes of low-income families or senior citizens on fixed incomes.

Better yet, I'll agree to give a business a tax break if it agrees to train and pay the kid as an apprentice.

National service shouldn't be limited to government jobs and to college students, either. There are growing numbers of talented people, many of them red-eyed veterans of America's corporate world, who are turned off by their jobs. They are burned-out yuppies sick of wearing business suits, sick of life on the fast track. They are willing to take cuts in pay to do something that makes them happier personally and professionally.

So let them teach, and let's subsidize their pay with income tax breaks for the first five years they agree to devote to teaching. Or lend them money for post-graduate education so they can make the transition from big business to the classroom.

Somebody said there aren't enough good apprenticeship programs in America. Give big and small businesses tax incentives to bring high school graduates into their ranks and train them in a real way -- not as gofers and mail-sorters, but as interns learning a skill and preparing for a career. Let them pay these interns on a special scale, with no benefits other than on-the-job training.

The kids get experience, some money for tuition (or for rent to parents while they live at home) and a shot at a position after graduation. Companies get tax breaks and, more important, the trained workers they desperately need.

A comprehensive national service program would provide a way for the nation to live up to its obligations to the young men and women who signed on for military careers just as the Cold War was winding down.

Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, for instance, wants young soldiers who lose their jobs due to defense cuts to join ranks for an "urban Peace Corps" that would help combat crime in public housing projects. Local police departments would get badly needed help.

And poor kids would get much-needed role models in their respective communities because Flynn's proposal calls for its participants to live rent-free in the projects they serve. After three years, they would get some help financing a college education or buying their first homes. Flynn submitted his proposal last Friday to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The possibilities for public service are endless -- as are, I'll bet, the ranks of Americans willing to sign on. If we build it, they will come.

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