Some 2020 Democrats have a plan to heal the divisions in the United States by pushing young Americans to battle climate change — an issue that has divided Americans for decades.
Both South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) have proposed expanding opportunities for national service programs in the United States. National service programs are government-funded service opportunities for young Americans. The U.S. already has AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, which offer service opportunities to serve low-income areas throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Delaney and Buttigieg would like to see national service programs drastically expanded in order to address issues of failing infrastructure and to battle climate change.
While their plans differ, they both see national service programs as serving two main goals: unifying Americans and rebuilding the U.S. to battle climate change.
In his recent interview with IJR, Delaney explained that an expansion of national service programs would be a priority he would tackle in his first 100 days if he became president.
The former congressman’s plan would provide four pathways for young Americans to choose: military service, community service, infrastructure apprenticeships, and a new service opportunity he would call the “Climate Corps.”
Programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps would still be housed under the banner of community service, and military service would continue as is.
To address the infrastructure failures in the U.S., Delaney would like to put young Americans to work to rebuild the streets and bridges that are crumbling. The former congressman’s plan would be to award private companies contracts to rebuild the U.S. with a stipulation that they hire apprentices participating in the national program.
Those who choose to obtain an infrastructure apprenticeship would be trained by the trade unions and would receive a professional certificate upon completion.
As Delaney told IJR, he sees climate change as an issue that requires all hands on deck. His plan is to create a national service program that would tackle environmental projects like retrofitting buildings with eco-friendly technology and manage sustainability efforts:
“To deal with climate change, we’ve got to do many, many, many, many things; that’s not the only thing I’m proposing for climate change. But I think as part of national service, it would be really great if young people — the way they serve their country is to go around and help build sustainable infrastructure and help people, maybe seniors, retrofit their homes for energy efficiency, that kind of stuff.”
Delaney has not signaled that the national service project would be required of all young Americans. Instead, he noted that he believes young people will be incentivized to join because it creates an opportunity for high school graduates to “serve their country, travel, and get paid while learning a skill.”
Although Buttigieg’s national service plan is far less detailed than Delaney’s proposals — he’s only committed to three paragraphs to the issue — he often references the issue as one of his main plans to unify America.
Buttigieg — who served as a Navy Reserves officer — wants to expand national service opportunities to tackle “climate adaptation” issues in the U.S., as well as serving low-income areas.
In a break from Delaney, Buttigieg was much more forward about his intention to make service mandated.
“Military service, Peace Corps service, and domestic service-year opportunities through efforts like AmeriCorps should be expanded until service becomes a universal expectation for every American youth,” he wrote on his website.
The mayor explained that he sees national service as a key way of unifying the country because people from different backgrounds will be forced to cooperate.
“We need to grow our national service programs to give more opportunities for young Americans to serve,” his website says. “Service provides a deeper sense of community, tackles critical national and global challenges, and can help heal our divided nation.”
The Problems with National Service
While these national service programs are being marketed as a unifying way to rebuild America, nothing in American politics is ever that simple, and a lot of questions remain as to the effectiveness of the idea.
What Are They Fixing?
Both Delaney and Buttigieg see national service programs as a unifying endeavor that could help to rebuild America or prepare for a changing climate, but these projects would need to be approved by Congress.
The Green New Deal — which Buttigieg supports — contains provisions for an environmental jobs guarantee, similar to Delaney’s Climate Corps, but that proposal has been so toxic that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) won’t even allow a vote on the issue.
Congress would have to decide what national service projects get funded, and the experience would likely be less than unifying.
Who’s Going to Pay for It?
Even if Congress miraculously agreed to a set of projects for the national service program to address, it would still need to be funded.
Delaney’s public-private partnership for his infrastructure plan could be an affordable method for a small-scale program because it would be a requirement on a government contract signed by a private company for an infrastructure project that would presumably be happening either way. The expense would land on the private companies vying for federal contracts.
When it comes to the Climate Corps or Buttigieg’s plan, however, the total costs aren’t clear. Delaney recently announced that his entire climate plan would cost $4 trillion, but it isn’t clear how much of that is designated for Climate Corps.
Buttigieg’s plan lacks details, but his intention to make national service an expectation of all 18-year-olds would likely mean American taxpayers would be footing the bill for the living expenses of young adults in addition to the project work itself.
Can Young Americans Be Forced to Work for the Government?
Delaney already conceded that a mandate on national service is “probably unconstitutional” and hasn’t shown interest in making it so.
Buttigieg, on the other hand, didn’t hit on the constitutionality of the proposal but did note other ways to coerce young Americans into joining, including mandated questions about service on a “college application or when you apply for a job,” as he told MSNBC.