National service plan now aims more at poor Had been touted as middle-class aid

June 17, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration's plan for a national service corps is moving with dispatch through Congress, but it is quietly transmuting into something a bit different from the one that candidate and then President Clinton so frequently described to enthusiastic crowds.

Showing the effects of strong political and social forces, the program, which was approved by committees in both the House and Senate yesterday, is no longer primarily a way for middle-income young people to earn money for college while doing socially useful work.

The legislation making its way through Congress, however, ensures a strong representation of low-income participants. Projects in economically distressed areas will be given priority, and the legislation requires that at least one-third of the projects meet that criterion.

"It has changed," Eli Segal, who head's the White House national service office, said. "In the campaign, it was frequently identified as a middle-class program. Now it's clear that the president wants it to be more than a middle-class program."

The change is occurring as the White House is striving to placate urban liberals and ethnic lobbies that feel shortchanged by some of Mr. Clinton's decisions, including his withdrawal of Lani Guinier's nomination for a Justice Department post.

It could come at a significant cost, though. By scaling back the stake of middle-income people in the program, he opens himself to more criticism that he is really a traditional liberal tax-and-spend Democrat.

Particularly disappointed might be the so-called Reagan Democrats, who saw national service as a rare Democratic program that actually would help them and their children. It was these Reagan Democrats who helped sweep Mr. Clinton into office and their support for him has been waning in recent weeks as they watch his plans to "reinvest" in America translate into more taxes for them and less spending on programs that would help them.

The nips and tucks in this high-profile program demonstrate with particular clarity the effects of powerful forces on a new president's agenda.

According to the legislation making its way through Congress, the stipend that participants of national service would receive, in addition to a low wage, could be used not only for college -- as it was originally pitched -- but also toward getting a GED high school equivalency diploma, or non-college training.

It is essential that the program -- expected to have 25,000 participants by 1994 and cost $394 million -- give opportunities to low-income people to serve their communities and earn money for their educations, said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. For poor young people, he said, two years of national service and a $10,000 stipend for education could put their whole life on a different track.

"Those who are already doing well don't need a lot of help," he said.

Mr. Segal stressed, however, that economically advantaged young people and affluent areas will not be barred from the program. Ideally, participants from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds will work together on the national service teams.

Mr. Clinton applauded the bipartisan support the national service legislation received in the committees. Only the Republicans voted against it in the Senate, while the measure passed in the House on a voice vote.

"We've known for a long time that national service will bring Americans together," Mr. Clinton said in a statement. "It's good to see that it brings Congress together as well."

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