America faces two seemingly unrelated problems: a worrisome lack of civic literacy and informed civic engagement, and an escalating burden of student loan debt.
We could address both issues with a new G.I. Bill.
After World War II, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. It provided a wide range of benefits for returning veterans, including subsidies that allowed them to obtain low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans that could be used to start a business, and cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend a university or vocational training program. By 1956, roughly 2.2 million veterans had used those education benefits to attend college, and another 5.6 million had used them to obtain job training.
The G.I. Bill contributed significantly to the creation of a skilled workforce, moved thousands of people into the middle class, and was a spur to long-term economic growth.
Originally conceived as an effort to reward those who had risked their lives for their country, it had a number of other positive consequences: It raised the skill level of the American workforce and provided an avenue for social mobility.
Military service is one way to defend the country. Another is ensuring that citizens understand and participate in the democratic system our military is protecting. Survival of America qua America is not the same thing as physical survival.
To put it bluntly, there is more than one way to lose one’s country.
If we are to provide that second kind of defense—defense of the American system of law and government—we require a civically educated populace, and you need only pick up a paper or listen to candidates for public office to see that current patchwork efforts to boost civic knowledge are not producing that populace.
Recently, Matt Impink (now at the Indy Chamber) and I proposed a national service program for high school graduates, modeled after the G.I. Bill. Students would be paid minimum wage during a one-year “tour of duty.” At the end of that year, assuming satisfaction of the requirements, participants would receive stipends sufficient to pay tuition, room and board for two years at a public college or trade school. The public service requirement would be satisfied through employment with a government agency or not-for-profit focused upon local civic improvement. In addition, students would be required to attend and pass a rigorous civics course to be developed by the U.S. Department of Education in cooperation with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools.
In addition to raising the level of civic knowledge, such a program would reduce today’s unsustainable level of student debt.
According to a 2014 report by The New York Times, total student loans outstanding have risen to $1.1 trillion, compared with $300 billion just a decade before. The average total debt for student borrowers was around $30,000 in 2013.
Excessive student debt affects the entire economy. People with student loans, for example, are less likely to start businesses. Considering that 60 percent of jobs are created by small business, diminishing the ability to create new businesses is an obvious problem.
In an economy that depends upon the ability and willingness of consumers to purchase homes, furniture, automobiles and other goods, debt loads that preclude or delay such purchases also affect us all.
The G.I. Bill was a social contract that said, if you invest in your country’s future, your country will invest in yours.
Can we do it again?•
Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send comments on this column to email@example.com.