Time for a New GI Bill

I’ve been thinking.

There are a number of policy changes that would make a big difference in the lives of poor Americans. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to raise the minimum wage. We also need stronger banking regulations, better and lower-cost day care availability, and improved public education in our poorer neighborhoods, just for starters. These and many other measures would help narrow the wide gap between rich and poor.

But I want to suggest a more sweeping—and admittedly somewhat audacious—policy. I want to advocate for a new GI Bill.

Here’s my proposal: upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

Here’s my justification: we have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

Of course, when people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

As I’ve previously noted, Ferguson, Missouri, a town that is two-thirds African-American and has a virtually all-white power structure, reported a twelve percent voter turnout in its most recent municipal election.

Poverty explains more of this than race.

Poverty is a reliable predictor of low political participation and efficacy. Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to go to college—an opportunity they may not have otherwise—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

The need to borrow money in order to afford college keeps many young people from getting the education they need. It keeps others from taking lower-paying jobs with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations after they graduate. Our high level of student loan debt has been identified as a substantial drag on the economy, because payment on those loans is preventing many recent graduates from setting up households, buying homes and appliances and even starting families–all activities that keep the economy humming.

As with so many other aspects of contemporary American life, the burdens fall most heavily on those who can least afford them.

A new GI Bill along these lines would enable informed civic participation and give voice to the currently voiceless; and it would simultaneously addresses our horrific levels of student loan debt.

What’s not to like?


  1. Funny, I’d just posted to Facebook the quote from John Greene about education being for society and not having to live with stupid people. Very bad paraphrase of his quote. Anyway, I’d added that education is good for society, but not for the few who control everything. Keep them dumb and in line. The cynic in me thinks that might be the “what not to like” that keeps this from happening.

  2. I agree completely with the proposed civic service and instruction. Far too many Americans do not know our history, structure, and individual responsibility so aptly stated in our country’s governing documents.

    However, I believe that any minimalization of the role of “race” in how we function as a country is not an accurate portrayal of a significant part of many of our country’s issues. While there may be studies that support the premise that poverty may be a stronger predictor of voter participation, I believe strongly that in most studies, especially those conducted by majority research firms, advocacy organizations, and universities and colleges do not adequately consider the nuances of African-American culture. Until our history and cultural mores are studied equally to that of the majority race, studies of such social issues will be weakened by this lack of understanding.

    Finally, what our country needs is an honest, open, and extended conversation about race in America. In a perfect world, this conversation would result in a complete overhaul of all textbooks, research papers, studies, and surveys so that they are changed to acknowledge in detail the many contributions of ALL races in America. Until then, the achievements of minorities will remain a paragraph instead of multiple chapters in the books we use in the proposed civic education courses.

  3. My daughter-in-law is an Army vet who almost died due to misdiagnosis here in the VA Medical Center of an aortic aneurysm which ruptured. Her aftercare was questionable. The current uproar regarding ill treatment of vets on many levels is well founded. Her son is a paramedic in the Navy; super intelligent and hopes to use the GI Bill to further his medical education at the end of active duty. Much improvement is needed regarding our active military and our vets; they endangered their lives, lost valuable time with families, some lost jobs and many returned mentally and emotionally – if not physically – disabled. They have earned assistance from this country and this government to return to civilian life, family, home, medical care and jobs.

    Ballard’s push for pre-school support has me questioning the use of those tax dollars for what amounts to child care while public elementary and high schools lack needed funds to provide decent basic education. Many of our young people enlist in the military hoping for a chance at a better future through their active service and benefits upon retirement. Many attempt to pass the required testing to enlist only to learn they fall way short of needed education to qualify – especially in the area of mathmatics. We seem to offer a lack of benefits on a par with post Civil War vets who were just relieved of military duty and left on their own. So far there seems to be much talk about improvements but little action. If not for our military this country wouldn’t exist.

  4. One of my children recently told me that he was still paying student loan debt. Despite the fact that he has a PHD and has worked in his field of expertise, he is approaching fifty years of age and still paying at 8% + interest rate after many attempts to consolidate his and his wife’s debt. He said that he will probably die before it is paid off but that his heirs will still be liable for repayment. As a side note, he went to public universities and had academic scholarships as an undergrad.
    A very recent GOA report stated student loan debt is increasing among older adults who are paying to their own educations, not their children’s. There was article online in the International Business Journal regarding the issue on Sept 10. It states in part:

    Student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, and when seniors default on loans, the Department of Education can garnish their Social Security payments and other federal benefits in order to recoup the balance. More seniors are now seeing their benefits reduced because of student debt, the report found:

    “From 2002 through 2013, the number of individuals whose Social Security benefits were offset to pay student loan debt increased about fivefold from about 31,000 to 155,000,” the GAO states. “Among those 65 and older, the number of individuals whose benefits were offset grew from about 6,000 to about 36,000 over the same period, roughly a 500 percent increase.”

    There was a senate hearing on the issue a few days ago, but little came of it. The expectation is that the numbers will increase steadily over the next decades.

  5. Besides this being about the most obvious reverse racial discrimination program to hit the streets in a while, who’s going to pay for this thing?

    Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is and pony up some bucks to pay for another government giveaway. I’m not and I’m a veteran.

    Why don’t you spend some of that creative genius that you seem to possess , and try to help solve this nation’s financial debt crisis. Or are you just one of those liberal yellow dog Demos in Congress who spends everybody else’s money until eventually the pot runs dry. Sheila, the pot is dry.

  6. Our colleges and universities are seeing reduced enrollments in the liberal arts, but it is precisely in that realm – history, philosophy, literature, language, political science, art, religion – that the world will find the wisdom with which to right itself. More business, communications, and computer degrees will do little to get us out of the mess we are in.

    When I was in High School in the 1950s we had a required course called “Problems of American Democracy.” Not only did we learn about our civic and political structures, we also learned to recognize that there could be problems associated with them. Not at all bad for the 50s!

  7. I think your proposal needs to address those who drop out of high school before graduating. Maybe require that they provide community service until they either finish high school or a GED.

  8. After I thought that I’d retired I found myself working for a Swiss firm. They made the equivalent of building size swiss watches. Not for keeping time of course but extremely high precision mechanical and electronic devices for manufacturing different stuff. Printing newspapers was one thing.

    The culture of Switzerland was a marvel to me at least as awe inspiring as the Alps. Among the cultural trinkets that I collected there was the notion that education was a joint state/industry/parental partnership.

    About 1/4 of our employees were apprentices. They spent time at our facility as well as in school. Our initial responsibility was to sort them. Some had potential for engineering, some for various skilled trades that we needed,and some were required to find different apprentice opportunities.

    They were paid for their time at our plant and learned by doing useful things. My sense is that the program paid for itself but I don’t know the details.

    One conversation that I’ll never forget with my boss was him lamenting that they used to come better prepared from home for the social aspects of business. Like treating customers real or potential with a firm handshake, eye contact and great respect. If they didn’t come from home that way they certainly left their apprenticeship knowing it.

    College is public education in Switzerland so those capable of it, continued through it as well as continuing their apprenticeship at higher and higher levels of responsibility. In both areas continuing meant demonstrating your potential to be greater than others with similar aspirations.

    In the end, people were productive from their early teens. They were exposed to real life early and first hand. Those with superior capabilities had a clear path to attainment regardless of their parents wealth. My boss’s son became a medical doctor, at no cost to his family, by early and often displaying his capability to be among the best.

    Because of my limited exposure to life there, I can’t say much about how those of limited talent or inspiration faired. The fact though that they are and have been among the most productive countries on earth testifies to the capability of their culture.

    The secret? Shared goals and responsibility for the success of the country, not their canton or party or even their language specific region. German or French or Italian or Romansh. Respect for potential and demonstrated capability.

    BTW, another cultural trinket. Don’t waste time at work and don’t pass up recreation. They thought that Americans were dumb as rocks to not take full advantage of holidays and vacation.

    There are many better ways than ours. Our apprentices were encouraged to start their careers elsewhere and bring back someday better ideas about doing what we did.

    We like to value only individual capability here. Something that we learned at the movies primarily. Smarter people recognize the contribution of culture as well as individual capability. We used to too. We gave it away.

    Can we turn our trajectory? I think yes, but I just don’t know.

  9. Post-secondary training and education are good ideas if one can get to school, is healthy enough to attend, has child care available (for those with children), is not stoned or abused or malnourished or otherwise disengaged. Social workers, psychometrists, school nurses, and both elementary and secondary counselors are desperately needed in sufficient supply to work with students and their parents to overcome the multiple barriers poverty imposes. The social safety net has huge holes. The longer term benefits of civic engagement will always be secondary to food, shelter, health, and transportation.

  10. What’s not to like?
    Are you forgetting our new civic theology? Here are a few important items:
    1) The government can do no right and all programs are by definition failures and wastes of money (except when transferring tax dollars to the private sector). Only the private sector can do right.
    2) The entry for the definition of “public investment” is blank.
    3) There is not enough money!!! We’ve spent too much, so we need another tax cut!
    4) We need another tax cut EVERY year!!!

    Do you remember now?

    As for me, I would use a single word to describe your idea: Brilliant!

  11. I would like to add a bit to the person who recommends addressing drop outs.

    The OLD G.I. bill saved my life and the quality of it. In 1960, a dry troubled 17 year old) I dropped out of high school and joined the Army. While in the Army I tested through the GED. When I came home the GI bill required IU to give me a chance and helped a bit with costs. Over time I earned a MHA and about half of an M.Div.

    Today that kind of help is not available. The country and the state gained well over 35 years of service from that investment in me and now we don’t have a way to make similar investment in others.

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