Civic Works: A new way to help cities and people

Seth Goldman

April 07, 1993|By Seth Goldman

WHILE sparks may fly about other details of President Clinton's economic plan, his national service proposal will send powerful beacons of opportunity and hope to America's youth. Some early beams have already been sighted in Baltimore.

Although the final details of the president's plan have not been announced, the goal is to offer young adults loans for college or job training in exchange for a year or two of service.

Young men and women will act as neighborhood police, teachers' aides, assistants in community health centers. Or, like corps members in Civic Works, Baltimore's new youth service corps, they will renovate low-income housing and beautify parks.

One of the key differences between the president's proposal and previous youth employment efforts is that the drive and direction for service programs must come from the communities they serve. Just as Civic Works is required to raise a large portion of its budget from Baltimore-area sources, youth corps around the country will not be able to rely on government handouts to stay afloat. By leveraging private and local support, federal seed money will yield an even stronger investment.

Aside from saving taxpayers money, this approach helps insure that organizations like Civic Works start small, stay locally based and remain entrepreneurial, mindful of their sponsors and the bottom line. The community and the marketplace, not a remote bureaucrat, will be the ultimate judge of whether a service program deserves to be expanded.

Just as impressive is the growing commitment of Maryland-based businesses. Baltimore Gas and Electric, the Rouse Company and several area foundations have made major investments in Civic Works because they understand that the economic vitality of the region hinges on today's youth, tomorrow's work force.

Consider some of the alternatives if we fail to provide economic opportunities through service: The U.S. Department of Education reports that the government has lost $19 billion in defaults on national student loans, $3.6 billion in 1991 alone. Or consider a worse alternative, the yearly price tag for an inmate in the federal prison system: $20,000.

Compared to those figures, the $3.4 billion President Clinton is requesting to fund loans-for-service for 100,000 young men and women in 1997 is a bargain. His proposal would help young adults afford college because the debt would be paid through service and afterward as a small percentage of income, possibly through taxes.

College is only one option for young people who choose to serve. The president's proposal will also open doors for those making the transition from school to work or continued education.

In Baltimore, where the youth unemployment rate is 19 percent, tens of thousands of young men and women lack the experience or attitude to perform well on a job. Unlike youth employment programs which often wind up paying teen-agers to stay out of trouble, Civic Works maintains a rigorous schedule and tough performance standards.

Civic Works corps members gain training, a work ethic that will make them good workers in any field, money that can be put toward continued education or an apprenticeship and a better understanding of the residents and needs of their community.

Participants are also taught life skills such as personal budgeting and job-search techniques that will help them become self-reliant, responsible citizens. They renovate, beautify and care for their community as they build their own futures.

Whether it's beefing up our police, improving the quality of public education, removing the threat of lead paint from low-income housing or beautifying parks and historical sites, the services that young men and women can provide are central to the quality of life in our community.

Without the workers to renovate a park pavilion or a playground, the area deteriorates. What used to be a gathering spot for the neighborhood might be overrun by drug dealers, and before too long it becomes the place parents tell their children to avoid.

But what if a team of spirited 17- to 23-year-olds can rehabilitate the area, run a summer sports camp there for the local kids and work to continue the community's involvement at the end of the summer?

Although Civic Works has just begun, the corps members are quickly discovering that when they are given the chance to serve, their work becomes more than just another job and their community becomes more than just a place to live.

Seth Goldman is director of development for Civic Works. From 1990 to 1992 he was deputy press secretary for then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.

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