In a late-May Gallup Poll, only about half of Democratic primary voters had even heard of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and only about a quarter likely knew how to pronounce his name. In a crowded field of nationally recognized politicians promising large-scale structural change if elected president, Buttigieg’s “New Call to Service” flies under the policy radar.
Buttigieg’s plan to invest in national public service programs speaks to a set of values not expressed loudly by many presidential candidates since President John F. Kennedy — public service not only gets done the work of social justice but can help heal divisions in society.
When JFK challenged the American public to “ask what you can do for your country,” he wasn’t merely recruiting for the armed forces. He asked Americans to “struggle against … tyranny, poverty, disease, and war.” He believed public service that establishes relationships, spreads opportunity and breeds collective thought was the key to reestablishing the United States' national purpose and achieving peace in that age of nuclear terror.
While now we don’t face nuclear Armageddon daily, fears of isolation and loss of community permeate the public consciousness.
Buttigieg’s proposal aims to address these fears by recruiting recent high school and college graduates from every background to build healthier communities.
Currently, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps do not have sufficient funding to grant positions to all qualified applicants. The Serve America Act would provide additional funding to Peace Corps and AmeriCorps to open thousands more service positions.
It would also institute three new service corps for recent high school graduates: Community Health Corps, Intergenerational Corps and Climate Corps. Together, these organizations would serve on the local level to treat addiction, expand access to care for senior citizens and build climate sustainability.
@PeteButtigieg in @TaskandPurpose: "I am determined to help repair the division in our nation's social fabric through a call to national service that will eventually deliver a million paid service opportunities a year for people across the country.” #ServeAmericaTogether pic.twitter.com/i5P42jc4ne— Serve America Together (@ServeUSA2gether) September 5, 2019
There’s a distinction to be made between mere volunteerism and civic participation through public service. The United States has a lot of volunteers. But oftentimes, volunteering is a one-off event not connected to a wider project, mission or organization. Yoni Appelbaum at The Atlantic argues that volunteering is great, but there’s an “intrinsic value” to organized civic participation around a guiding objective. It teaches participants how to function in a democracy.
The Serve America Act picks up from the limitations of volunteerism. First, Buttigieg’s plan uses student loan forgiveness packages and paid positions to incentivize service. This provides more opportunity for recent college graduates who want to serve, and it gives them a stake in their own service. Second, the intrinsic value of civic participation builds confidence in our democracy. National public service programs require people of disparate backgrounds to work together. People simply gain more appreciation for the United States' pluralism, Appelbaum said, when they work together toward common goals.
Of course, public service opportunities are not limited to government programs. Working at the local food pantry or organizing for United Way certainly counts. However, in an age where organized community action and civic engagement have declined precipitously, a new government investment in public service could jumpstart a once vibrant part of U.S. life that has sustained communities for so long.
The Serve America Act reflects JFK’s sense of national pride, a pride not couched in jingoistic rhetoric or insisting that this country is flawless. On the contrary, it’s the fact that the United States has so many problems that public service is necessary. But it requires us to have confidence that while the United States has big problems, it itself is not a big problem. The United States yearns for that confidence that JFK inspired.
Many people may not know who Pete Buttigieg is or how to pronounce his name, but his values and concrete policy proposals like the Serve America Act warrant a serious consideration of his candidacy.
Sam Harder is a freshman from Wichita studying economics, mathematics and French.