Bonds of Citizenship

A new route to universal national service and economic fairness.

It is time to enact a baby bond/national service program in America. There is a crisis of civic participation in America, one that marches in step with the erosion in social trust over the past several decades. Notwithstanding the Tea Party (which is more a governmental phenomenon than a grassroots social one) and Occupy Wall Street movements, we’ve become increasingly a nation of cynical spectators, not participants, in our own governance. No democracy can be healthy with the levels of mistrust and alienation that exist today in America. (Although, as California’s catastrophic referendum politics illustrates, it may be possible to overdo democratic participation.) We need to recreate a culture of national service that will have long-lasting benefits for civic participation, that will frontload some equity for those younger Americans who don’t experience equality of opportunity, and that, above all, will refurbish our country’s depleted stock of social capital. Once we get the plague of plutocracy under control, here’s how we can do it.

When an American citizen is born, the U.S. government should create, along with a Social Security number, a savings account for that child into which between $5,000 and $7,500 is placed—called a baby bond or, as some prefer to call it, a service bond. That child’s parents, family, and friends may contribute to that fund until the child becomes eighteen, and those contributions are treated like charitable deductions for tax purposes (assuming the continuation of the current tax structure), and can be subtracted from taxable income. Through the miracle of compound interest, every child will have a considerable nest egg upon reaching the age of consent—upward of $20,000 to $30,000.

The baby bond or service bond idea has been operating in this way in Great Britain on a modest scale since 2003; even if we just copied that model, it would be a way to get equity spread around to more young people who can put it to productive use.

But under my plan, the model would be expanded: to access the accumulated money, every citizen would have to perform national service in one of eight categories: the military, the Peace Corps, Educore (an organization like Teach for America), forestry and environmental remediation, urban “broken windows” brigades, hospice and elderly care, hospital ship duty, and a Habitat for Humanity-style program. (Military service should be made to attract only a small percentage of baby bonders, because the last thing our generals want or need is a huge number of untrained short-timers to put up with. We need to be clear that the baby bond/national service concept is not a smokescreen for a new military draft.)

The first twelve- or eighteen-month stint of service, complete with training, would have to be fulfilled between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, and would entitle a person to three-fourths of his or her bond. Another nine- or twelve-month stint, performed at any time (including after age sixty-five, or the official retirement age), would entitle the person to the rest. The funds would simply stay in the same account earning interest until the owner chose to withdraw them. We would be crazy—we are crazy—not to encourage and incentivize our older citizens to share their experience with others.

The first period of service, in any of the eight categories, would have to be performed away from a person’s home area. The government would provide a stipend for basic subsistence housing and board (financed in part by the interest-earning money being held in maturing baby bond accounts), just as City Year and AmeriCorps do now.

A key reason for “circulating” our young adults is to break the cycle of poverty, drug addiction, and hopelessness that afflict far too many inner-city residents and a significant number of rural poor as well. A way to solve this problem is to remove disadvantaged young people from those harmful environments and have them come face-to-face with people of their own age from different places and circumstances. The best way to generate real understanding among young adults from all walks of life is to have them get to know each other—and, potentially, work alongside each other—in a neutral environment. The military draft once helped to fulfill this function; we need a new method through which we can increase our reserves of social trust.

Once they have fulfilled their first service period, young adults can use their bond money to pay for college or vocational training, put a down payment on a home, or start a business. This is the way to create a real shareholder mass democracy. The skills they learn during their service stint might alone be worth the price of the program in the long run.

Most Americans understand and support the rationale for Social Security: as a society we hold ourselves morally responsible for providing basic minimum care for our elderly out of respect for their humanity and an abiding sense of fairness toward them. If we are concerned about our elderly enough to pool social resources on their behalf, why don’t we take a similar attitude toward our young people, who not only deserve a fair start but whose accomplishments in constructive lives ahead of them will benefit us all? Baby bonds are not charity or welfare; they are socially selfish, since their results benefit everyone.

Because of the overall benefits to society, businesses and state and local government will have good reason to offer partial or full matching funds to encourage baby bonders to spend their money at colleges or in areas those entities want to support. If Pittsburgh, say, wanted in-state baby bonders to invest in real estate or businesses in certain parts of the city, the municipal government could offer special incentives to attract bond resources. If General Electric wanted to encourage more students to go into electrical engineering, it could offer to match any baby bonder funds used to pay for an academic major in that field. The possibilities, if not literally endless, are certainly extensive.

This proposal would integrate the many private volunteer and public service programs already in existence, and perhaps add a few more. It would entail dramatically scaling up and incentivizing in a new way what we already do in a fragmented and inadequate way. Still, a national service program of this magnitude would not be cheap. Even if we used existing nonprofit infrastructures to their maximum, the government would have to put aside (but not initially spend) money for baby bonds, pay out money when service is rendered, and pay for the operational costs of the program. According to one estimate, initial costs could run about $26 billion per year.

Of course, the GI Bill—which serves as a basic model for the baby bond idea—wasn’t cheap in the short term either. No serious investment in building social capital on a national scale comes cheap. The Civilian Conservation Corps was also expensive—but it worked, in economic as well as social terms. Just like the GI Bill and the CCC, the benefits of a baby bond/national service program would more than offset its costs over time. We already pay for prison and drug-related debilities that stem from poisonous inner-city and poor rural environments. We do not have to tolerate those financial and social costs. If we look at all the cost factors involved over the long term, a baby bond program would be an overall economic winner. As it is, every dollar spent on AmeriCorps volunteers pays back roughly two dollars in services rendered.

Besides, costs are relative. We know how many Americans will turn eighteen in any given year—around 4.4 million—and we can roughly estimate program costs. If we do that math, two things become clear: first, the United States, the wealthiest mass society in history, can afford the baby bond program; second, the costs are almost trivial compared to, say, the wars of choice we have fought over the past decade, not to mention the initial costs of the financial bailouts of the mid-2000s.

Note, too, that baby bond service would not be compulsory, and there would be no penalty for demurral. Government would incur no cost in tracking down truants and dodgers. If a person did not wish to do national service, the bond money would go back into the general pool to earn interest, pay for program operations, and help others. But once a culture of service was created, the opt-out rate would probably be relatively small, and would certainly decrease as the program got established.

Clearly, much more could be said about how this program would work and what the main challenges and benefits would be. Intervening in the negative social patterns in our inner cities, for example, shouldn’t wait until our young people turn eighteen; supplementary programs would have to be devised. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, 15 percent of our American high schools—about 2,000 institutions—produce the vast majority of dropouts; baby bonders serving in these so-called dropout factories would surely make an enormous difference.

And we can’t wait eighteen years from the passage of a bill to graduate our first baby bond class. We would have to devise ways to accelerate the program between now and 2031. Based on the already existing infrastructure of AmeriCorps and similar service organizations, surely we can find ways to scale up in the short term.

The patterns of undergraduate university life, too, would be altered as significant numbers of high school graduates performed national service instead of entering college at age eighteen or nineteen. But does anyone think it would be a tragedy for our young people to go to college a year or two later than most do now—and, likely, with service and life experience under their belt? This would likely benefit the vast majority of our kids and colleges. And universities may change their practices fairly dramatically, through technology-driven innovation, in the next few decades anyway. Integrating these educational improvements with a cadre of national service graduates would surely make the university experience more meaningful for many students—and benefit the larger American society, as well.

Adam Garfinkle

Adam Garfinkle is editor of the American Interest magazine and the author of the ebook Broken: American Political Dysfunction and What to Do About It, from which this article is adapted.