American Youth in Community Service

September 12, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Commentators will too glibly put down the White House ceremony today swearing in the first wave of 20,000 youthful Americorps volunteers as a halfway victory for Bill Clinton. They'll note the president didn't get nearly the size youth corps he hoped for.

The point should be what America's biggest youth-service experiment since the CCC (the Civilian Conservation Corps of the '30s) means for the country.

Mr. Clinton's effort and sincerity on this issue can't be gainsaid. He made the idea of calling our young people to community service -- and in return giving them a hand with their college costs -- a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Youth-service legislation went straight onto the president's first year's congressional agenda. Eli Segal, Mr. Clinton's 1992 campaign chief of staff, was appointed head of the adminstration's youth-service program. Since the authorizing bill passed -- albeit pared down drastically by fiscal pressures and the need to win congressional votes -- the president has returned to youth service in no less than 80 speeches.

But youth service is much bigger than a Clinton initiative. Thousands of Americans have in fact been part of a 20-year effort to bring us to the point of a broad-gauged, national youth-service program. Today's swearing-in, celebration and start-off for the Americorps should be as much their celebration as the president's.

Chief among the story's heroes are the thousands of youth who have served with distinction in such noble experiments, launched from the '70s onward, as the California Conservation Corps (offering ''hard work, low pay, miserable conditions'') and parallel programs operated by state and city governments from Washington to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania to Michigan, New York to San Francisco to Boston.

With their caring for the frail elderly, removing urban graffiti, helping out with day care, tutoring at-risk youngsters, assisting in hospices, working in drug abuse programs, clearing trails and parks, corps members helped give the lie to the idea that today's youth are concerned exclusively with themselves.

A cadre of public-policy entrepreneurs -- Roger Landrum, Donald Eberle, Syd Howe and others -- took up the cause, together with a number of columnists and editorial writers. Ford Foundation chief Franklin Thomas urged that national service ''be allowed to grow organically, from many different seeds, in many different soils'' -- which is precisely what happened at the state and local level.

Ford provided money to found Youth Service America, one of several organizations linking the local groups and laying the groundwork for national legislation. Ford, Mott, Kellogg and other foundations supported widened experiments. Campus-based community service got boosted and sustained by the Campus Compact, subscribed to by over 200 college and university presidents. Students formed their own grass-roots organization -- the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL) -- to push the cause.

During George Bush's presidency the Points of Light Foundation was launched to popularize voluntarism. Congress members of both parties began to introduce national-service legislation. The Democratic Leadership Council proposed multi-billion dollar funding for national youth service, on the model of the GI Bill, linking service and college aid. From youth themselves, such entrepreneurial organizations as City Year, Teach for America, Public Allies and the Urban Service Project sprang up.

Congress passed Sen. Edward Kennedy's National and Community Service Act of 1990, a modest federal grant effort to support state and local initiatives. The commission created by Senator Kennedy's bill laid the groundwork for the successful, Clinton-backed 1993 push to authorize the Americorps. The corps is essentially an amalgam of 300-plus service programs organized at the grass roots and selected by state commissions and Americorps as the nation's best and most promising.

For a two-year commitment, enrollees will receive $7,500 a year in pay, health insurance and $4,725 a year credit toward college or graduate-school expenses.

But even with full funding authorized by Congress -- $1.5 billion over three years -- Americorps' current authorization can't top 100,000 enrollees. The result will be something far more modest than the federally created and run CCC, which enrolled over 2.5 million jobless young men at the depths of the Great Depression.

Americorps, its director Mr. Segal says, ''reflects the dynamics of America in the '90s -- a time of more cynicism and skepticism about what the federal government can do.'' That means a more decentralized model in which the feds are ''more steerers than rowers, more partners and investment bankers.''

The federal partner is not, though, putting up the multi-billions that would be needed to make Americorps a universally available program. We're still far from Mr. Clinton's campaign vision of offering all American youth -- disadvantaged and middle class alike -- help with higher-education costs in return for two years of service.

But if Americorps does work and catches the public imagination, it could grow in that direction in future years -- establishing, in effect, a new social contract with our young people in which service to community is central. The critical element will be the dedication and quality of service of the young people themselves. That's why this week's kickoff is so significant.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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