Among the multiple newsletters I receive is one called The Signal. It recently had a thought-provoking report on a growing gender divide among young Americans.
Apparently, over the past few years, young women have become more liberal than young men. Forty-four percent of women aged 18 to 29 consider themselves “liberal,” compared to only 25 percent of men in the same age range—a major change from 30 percent of young women and 27 percent of young men considering themselves liberal a decade earlier.
The article attributed the increase in progressive politics to a series of trends: fewer women in that age bracket are married than was previously the case; more are educated and religiously unaffiliated, and they “spent formative adult years during the presidency of Donald Trump, whom a strikingly high ratio of them disliked.”
The bulk of the article was an interview with the researcher, and his observations (and their implications) were all interesting, but what struck me was the following.
Politically, climate change is important to Get Z. Gun policy is important. LGBTQ issues are important. I expect abortion to become tremendously important. Yet there isn’t one preeminent, animating political issue for this generation. What’s happened instead is that political identity has become increasingly central to people in defining who they are. It’s become a stand-in for character or even personality. That’s unfortunate in some ways. It leads Americans to be more politically segregated and to shut down political conversations based on the belief that knowing someone’s politics means you know what you need to about their whole life story and whether they’re part of your good tribe or not. We’re on track to become even more politically segregated—more politically polarized—and I believe the decline of institutions and the unraveling of our civic life are playing important roles in that process.
That analysis leads to the question “What can we do to ameliorate this political segregation?”
How about a requirement for national service, an updated version of the wildly successful GI Bill?
Here’s my proposal: upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one or two-year program of civic service. Upon satisfactory completion of that service, the government would pay for two years of college at a state university or trade school. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.
Civic service would require young people from disparate walks of life and different political “bubbles” to work together. Service performed for local government and vetted nonprofit organizations would also focus their attention on the common good–a concept missing from the worldviews of far too many Americans, young and old.
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 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. That disparity is especially pronounced among the young.
Poverty is a reliable predictor of low political participation and efficacy. Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an affordable opportunity to go to college or trade school—an opportunity they may not have otherwise—and conditioning that opportunity on a year or two of civic service—would do three extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt; and it would cut across the “political segregation” that is turning Americans who disagree with each other into enemies who cannot communicate with each other.
As we’ve seen in the current discussion of Biden’s debt forgiveness program, 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. The massive level of student loan debt is also a substantial drag on the economy, because payment on those loans prevents large numbers of 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 version of the GI Bill along these lines would require young Americans to meet and work alongside people from outside their “bubbles;” enable informed civic participation, and begin the task of permanently reducing our horrific levels of student loan debt.
It would be a win-win-win…..