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?
Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy. This post was originally published at sheilakennedy.net on September 15, 2014 and is republished here with the author’s permission.