WASHINGTON — Washington. Rugged and demanding youth service programs, says Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., could be one of America's best antidotes against ominous social dissolution and Los Angeles-style riots during the 1990s.
Our hopes are slim, he suggests, unless we move quickly to re-engage our poor, our jobless and our disillusioned and turned-off young people.
The concept of youth service has come a long way since 1933, the year President Franklin D. Roosevelt conceived the idea of the Civilian Conservation Corps. FDR asked Congress to act in March; the response was almost instant. By July, over 300,000 jobless young men were out in the woods, working on conservation projects and receiving special education courses.
Many of the 2.5 million young people who went through the CCC would later describe it an immense builder of skill and confidence, a turning point in their lives. There was, in fact, military discipline in the camps. One of the most prominent CCC organizers was the redoubtable Gen. George C. Marshall. Many reserve military officers were hired to run CCC operations.
No one today asks for some single, massive federal service corps -- a reincarnation of the CCC. But since formation of the California Conservation Corps in the 1970s, inventive youth service and conservation corps programs have spread to 27 states. Altogether, Youth Service America reports, there are 75 of them, operating on combined budgets of $180 million. They enroll some 25,000 young people.
The vast majority of programs involve tough calisthenics, uniforms -- real demands on kids -- often the first constructive discipline they've ever experienced.
City Year in Boston was launched by two young Harvard Law School graduates, Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, expressly to create a youth service prototype for communities nationwide.
City Year offers its young recruits (ages 17-22) a $100-a-week stipend and $5,000 scholarship on graduation. The recruits are poor, rich, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, inner-city gang, suburban preppy -- this is one of the few programs that doesn't just draw poor kids, but the wide variety of youth. Kids of widely divergent backgrounds not only get to meet; they also learn to work cooperatively together.
They work in teams of 10 to 12, building playgrounds and soup kitchens, rehabilitating homeless shelters, distributing food to the hungry, tutoring and mentoring younger kids, assisting the sick. The program builds self-confidence, leadership skills and, Mr. Brown says, a ''community of idealism.''
One would like to see hundreds of thousands of youths in just such programs. And it could happen. The Commission on National and Community Service, created by Congress in 1990, is just getting ready to make about $60 million in expansion grants to some of the country's best youth service programs.
Senator Wofford believes we should, in the wake of Los Angeles, at least double that and then ''scrounge and redirect money'' from lots of sources. Example: redirect about $700 million a year in questionably useful Job Training Partnership Act funds. Or use defense dollars to let several thousand competent people now leaving the military serve as leaders of youth service programs. Military bases slated for closure could also serve as youth service camps.
Senator Wofford thinks we should create a national voucher system to provide kids who sign up for youth service programs with living allowances and, on successful completion, educational bonuses.
Presidential candidate Bill Clinton has a parallel idea -- a universal educational loan program a young person can pay off by two or three years of public service, or a future add-on to income tax.
Author and former tennis champion Arthur Ashe argues that service programs should provide graduates with certification of the technical skills they learn -- to demonstrate, especially for disaffected minority youth, that their best efforts will be rewarded, that they won't fall victim to a discriminatory job market.
''We need these kids on the front lines -- to serve and not be served,'' says Senator Wofford. ''I'm sick and tired of the patronizing social-service approach -- treating young people as problems, dangers, menaces. We need to turn them around and let them discover themselves as resources.''
Critics can argue that a myriad of state and local youth service programs will be of uneven quality, that long-term results are uncertain. But we do now have a competent national youth service commission to guide the movement. And we've seen enough pilot programs to prove that youth service is a powerful way to divert poor kids from a life of the streets, joblessness, drugs and, all too often, crime and prison.
Youth service also is one of the rare tools we have to reclaim college-bound kids, as Senator Wofford puts it, from ''a self-centered life of civic indifference.''
Can we rationally contemplate spending billions on full youth service in a nation plagued by a $400 billion-a-year national deficit? The fiscal answer is no. But if we don't, the country's social fabric will keep on unraveling, rendering incalculable damage not just to budgets, but to our security as a nation.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.