What price patriotism? Debate and joy over 'voluntarism'

Michael S. McPherson & Morton Owen Schapiro

June 04, 1993|By Michael S. McPherson & Morton Owen Schapiro

HOW much would you pay for the privilege of serving your country?

If President Clinton's proposed national service plan gets off the ground, a lot of young people will ask themselves that question.

Evidently the designers of the plan must hope the appetite for sacrifice is strong.

Here's the deal. To get $5,000 in school loans forgiven, graduates will have to work for a year in national service, with a guaranteed minimum-wage stipend of a little under $9,000, typically in schools, parks, the auxilary police and similar jobs.

The alternative is to pass up national service, pay back the loan and get a job.

(By the time the program is phased in, between 1994 and 1997, the job market for college graduates should be booming again.)

Today, a freshly minted college graduate can earn $24,000 working for the government -- arguably itself a form of service. The graduate who signs up, taking a minimum-wage national service job, will give up about $15,000 in income.

At the same time, he or she will save $5,000 in loan payments -- a loss of $10,000.

Students who serve for the allotted two years stand to lose $20,000.

Even with a very favorable tax treatment, this is a steep price for service.

People who make a lot more money don't donate that much to charity; it seems silly to assume young graduates would.

Until a couple of days before the program was announced in April, the cost of participating was going to be less. At the last minute, Mr. Clinton cut the ceiling on annual loan forgiveness to $5,000 from $6,500, increasing the expense to our minimum wage-earning student by 18 percent.

In order to reduce the sacrifice asked of young people, the government would require more sacrifice from taxpayers, either through forgiving more loans or raising the stipend for public service. Supporters of national service may conclude that Americans won't stand for more taxes to pay for it.

But if taxpayers are too selfish to pay, why should we suppose young volunteers will prove to be exceptionally altruistic in deciding to serve?

A well-conceived and economically sound national service plan could renew America's spirit and self-confidence and broaden the experience and understanding of our young people.

But a program that sets the price of service too high will never get off the ground.

A failed national service plan would be worse, much worse, than nothing.

Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro are economics professors at, respectively, Williams College and the University of Southern California.

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