The Pro-Youth Pages
© 2002, Pro-Youth Pages

“Service Learning”

Hurting Youth and Our Economy, Too

America's politicians have found a new way to finance tax-cuts for middle-agers: replace government-paid workers with forced, unpaid child-labor. Through the schools, politicians now force young people to do "community service." America once confined such treatment to convicted criminals. The United States Constitution,


"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
-U.S. Constitution (Amendment XIII, Section 1)
in fact, specifically bans "involuntary servitude" except for those convicted of crimes. Our leaders, apparently, have decided the Constitution should only protect older people.

As "service learning" becomes more wide-spread, the government no longer needs to tax voters to pay for government services or to help fund non-profits that serve the community. Instead of funding, they get free labor.

Politicians sell this to us with an attractive sales pitch. They say it will instill youth with civic virtue while helping the less fortunate. They even claim it has educational value for the youth. They make it sound so good, we have to wonder why they don't force people of all ages to do this community service.

Unfortunately, all evidence shows us the sales pitch is dishonest. "Service learning" instills more bitterness than civic virtue, and it gives politicians an excuse to cut funding for community programs. In the end, it even hurts tax-payers. It damages the nation's economy, hurting all who live in America.

Hurting America's Economy

Right now, America is suffering through a recession, an economic problem caused by money circulating too slowly. This problem is exacerbated when the government forces people to work for free.

To understand why, imagine what would happen if the government actually paid young people a fair wage for doing this community service. Young people would then have more money and would spend it at local stores. The stores would therefore get more business and make more money; but to serve all these new customers and to compete with other stores, each store would have to hire more clerks. Some people who were unemployed would now have jobs as clerks. They would receive a paycheck and would spend their pay at local stores, giving the stores even more business and more need to hire a few more clerks.

More importantly, these local stores would have to order more merchandise to sell. Manufacturers would now make more money but would have to produce more merchandise. They would, therefore, need to hire more workers. People who were unemployed would now get jobs working in factories and on farms. These new workers would spend their pay at local stores, prompting the stores to hire even more employees and order even more merchandise, prompting manufacturers to hire even more workers; and the cycle keeps going. Legendary economist John Maynard Keynes referred to this as the "employment multiplier effect."

If students didn't spend time doing free labor but instead spent their time working for money (either for the government or for private employers) this would help circulate money and create this employment multiplier effect.

When politicians force youth to fill their time doing free labor, this leaves young people with less money to spend at local stores. When stores get less business, they don't need as many clerks so they lay off a few. They also order less merchandise. Manufacturers make less money and need fewer workers, so naturally they lay off workers. Laid off workers spend less money at their local stores; stores need even fewer clerks and order even less merchandise; the cycle continues.

One could say this "service learning" creates an unemployment multiplier effect.

Child Labor Laws

Ironically, when high schoolers want to work for money, the law sets up obstacles in the name of protecting them from exploitation. The Child-Labor laws place many restrictions on the hours young people may work and the types of jobs they may charge money to perform. Most states add their own restrictions on top of the federal Child-Labor laws. California, for example, makes it illegal for anyone younger than 18 to work at all for money unless he has his parents' permission. The result of all these Child-Labor laws is that youth are kept economically powerless — unemployed or underemployed (stuck in low-paying jobs).

When the Child-Labor laws were written, politicians told us the purpose was to protect youth from being exploited by employers. Now we must ask: What's more exploitative? Allowing youth to work for money? Or forcing youth to work for free?

The Child-Labor laws were written during the Great Depression, when adults were desperate for jobs and did not want to compete against young workers, who tend to be better employees: easier to train, more energetic, and less likely to goof off. Michael Moore's first film, Roger & Me, documented the auto-plant closings in Flint, Michigan. He showed how one Taco Bell manager tried to support the laid-off auto-workers by firing all his teenaged employees and replacing them with middle-aged ex-auto-workers. By the time Moore got his camera crew to that Taco Bell, the manager had already fired all the middle-agers and rehired the teenagers. The 30-somethings simply could not meet the standards set by the teenaged workers. They did not (perhaps could not) work as hard or as fast as their younger counterparts.

Were it not for the Child-Labor laws, teenagers might well dominate the fair-paying factory jobs of America, while middle-agers might be relegated to the low-paying fast food positions.

Law-makers today, however, have decided that reserving jobs for adults is not as important as funding tax-cuts for adults. Rather than pay adults to pick up trash or burn themselves in soup kitchens, the government forces young people to do these things for free, stealing teenagers' labor while robbing older people of job-opportunities.


Forced community service is often degrading work that deserves high compensation. I know one student who did her "service learning" in a center for the mentally retarded. Part of her work was wiping people after they went to the bathroom. Some of the retarded men, she told me, would get erections when she wiped them.

People who do this kind of work deserve to be well paid for what they do, and they deserve the dignity of making their own choices.

People who volunteer their time to help others deserve to be respected and thanked. Adults who volunteer still are.


"... the good you do will do you no good, because people will think you have been forced to do it, and they will not be in the slightest bit grateful to you."
— Machiavelli (The Prince)
When youth volunteer their time, however, they are often accused of "only doing it because someone made you."

For adults who are free to choose, volunteerism is viewed as evidence of honor and dedication. For teenagers, volunteerism is quickly becoming viewed as a sign of degradation and powerlessness. Even when youth freely chose to give their labor to a cause they support, others assume they are doing it against their will. Youth who volunteer are no longer respected or thanked. They are insulted.

"But Some Students Like It"

Colleges are now jumping on the bandwagon. Some professors find community service a way to feel warm and fuzzy without actually doing any work themselves. They rationalize that the students are getting something out of it, too: a fun and educational experience.

I was in a college class that did this. After speaking to more than 20 classmates, I found only one who said anything positive about her experience. Susan, a thin punk rocker, told me she found the community service a rewarding experience and said schools should make everyone do it.

Was she telling the truth? Or was this just a case of "misery loves company"? The answer became clear soon enough.

At the end of the quarter, Susan registered for another class with this professor. She was excited about the topic of this new class and could not wait to take it.

The next quarter, Susan told me she dropped that class after the first class meeting. Why? "He wanted us to do more community service!" she complained. "I already did my community service last quarter. I don't have time to do it again."

I guess she did not find the experience as rich and rewarding as she claimed.


Defenders of "service learning" often claim it provides a good learning experience for youth. From my experience, however, students do not learn any more from community service than they would learn working in a Nike sweatshop. And the sweatshop would pay them more.


Some will argue forcing youth to do community service is not a form of ageism, not a form of hostility against youth. After all, they will say, adults are forced to do jury duty. Isn't that the same thing?

The answer is no. There are two major differences.

The first difference is that in most states, no one is actually forced to do jury duty. Usually, a person is only forced to appear once at the court house for a few hours while the jury is selected. Any potential juror is excused from service if he simply claims serving on the jury would be a hardship to him. Either the judge will excuse him or one of the lawyers will use his power to remove that person. (No lawyer wants to face a juror who resents being stuck on a jury.)

The other difference is even more important: Juror is a position of power and dignity. Jurors are not forced to clean toilets or sweep floors. They are instead given power to decide the outcome of a legal case, the power to impose their views of justice on other people.

The community service inflicted on youth forces youth into a position of powerlessness and degradation. It does not give youth power. It takes away what little power youth still have.

Patriotism - The Last Refuge Of Scoundrels

Those who push this forced "volunteer work" like to wrap it in the American flag, telling us it is patriotic to support "service learning." The truth is, there is nothing patriotic about hurting our nation's economy. And there is nothing patriotic about spitting on American youth.

Exploitation, discrimination, hatred, and humiliation could only be "patriotic" in countries dedicated to the most repugnant values. As an American, I pray the United States never becomes such a country.


Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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