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Buttigieg unveils national service plan with new climate and health programs

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., addresses the Rainbow PUSH Coalition convention in Chicago on July 2. (Amr Alfiky/AP)

Pete Buttigieg, who enlisted in the Navy Reserve after college, announced Wednesday an expansive national service initiative meant to inspire young Americans to volunteer like he did.

The South Bend, Ind., mayor has laid out an ambitious plan to see 1 million high school graduates participate in some kind of service by 2026. His plan would create new service corps opportunities around climate issues, community health and senior care.

“I served alongside and trusted my life to people who held totally different political views,” the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said in a statement. “You shouldn’t have to go to war to have that kind of experience, which is why I am proposing a plan to create more opportunities for national service.”

The proposal would provide student loan relief for those who dedicate a year of their lives to service. The goal is for “where did you serve?” to be as important a question at a job interview as “where did you go to college?” he said.

The rollout echoes programs created under President John F. Kennedy, who famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you would do for your country.” Buttigieg’s plan would build upon the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, both the brainchild of Kennedy.

Buttigieg, who will discuss his proposal during a campaign stop in Iowa, is coming off a well-received debate performance and a huge second-quarter fundraising haul of $24 million. But his recent poll numbers show him in a distant fifth place, and he has struggled to make inroads with the black community.

Buttigieg’s plan includes a focus on expanding service opportunities for minority youth and emphasizes programs that allow urban youth to serve in rural communities and vice versa. A new competitive grant program to create “ecosystems of service around regional issues” will prioritize communities of color and rural areas.

The idea to encourage more Americans to give back to their communities has gained renewed traction in recent years as fewer young people seek out work in the public sector, the military has its smallest share of Americans serving since before World War II, and only 30 percent of Americans say they did any volunteer work in 2017.

Buttigieg’s plan borrows from the Service Year Alliance, a nonprofit group that encourages young people to dedicate a year of their life to a service program. The idea was born out of a comment made by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2012 in support of mandatory service of all kinds for young people.

The nonprofit group has challenged every presidential candidate to release a plan to expand national service and to promise to prioritize it within the first 100 days in office, said Aly Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Service Year Alliance. She said Buttigieg’s plan “is in direct response” to that challenge and that he is the first to heed its call.

In April, former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.), who is also running for president, introduced a similar national service plan, including a Climate Corps.

In early 2016, Joe Kearns Goodwin, a former Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and received a Bronze Star Medal, gave a local TED Talk in Boston called “National Service Can Make America Great Again.”

Goodwin, who followed a similar trajectory as Buttigieg — Harvard to the military — made similar observations that it was only at war that he met people from all different backgrounds and belief systems working together for a common good.

“You had a gruff specialist from Boston side-by-side with a moon-eyed private from Kansas, a religious kid from Chicago’s inner city and the college kid raised in a cul-de-sac,” Goodwin said. “It was a true blending of regions, races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds.”