Youthful Idealism Alone Won't Sustain Americorps

September 19, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Americorps, the nation's new Clinton-inspired, congressionally blessed youth service experiment, got a rousing White House start-off last week.

A single unifying oath was taken by Americorps members working in hundreds of participant programs -- from the Neighborhood Green Corps to the Navajo Nation Youth Conservation Corps, from Teach for America to the Delta Service Corps.

The warm and fuzzy moment of swearing in should not obscure, however, the barriers to an accessible and effective national service program -- a pathway for young Americans to move into active citizenship by exchanging community service for GI Bill-like education benefits.

The obstacles, in a nutshell, are cash, leadership, ideology and race.

The cash problem is finding the tens of billions of dollars to create a program large enough to accommodate millions of young Americans instead of the 100,000 budgeted to serve in the Americorps by 1996.

A successful shakedown for the Americorps may open Congress to funding a larger program -- assuming positive stories roll in from home districts where corps members are cleaning urban streams, assisting community policing, tutoring lagging students.

But even then, Youth Service America director Roger Landrum speculates, the federal larder will remain too bare for a program that reaches out to millions of middle-class as well as disadvantaged corps members. Youth service has to become so attractive to American society at large, Mr. Landrum says, that universities will start opening scholarship pools for corps graduates while corporations, private philanthropies and state and local governments become serious funding partners.

As one example, the director believes corporations focused on youth markets may contribute to youth service programs and scholarships for corps members as a conscious marketing device.

Next comes the leadership test. President Clinton has to be big enough not to personalize the Americorps exclusively to himself. He has to keep selling it as an effort of all of American society, one that will outlast his term because its benefits will be critical for our children's -- and our -- future.

And the new Corporation for National Service will have to turn in a stellar performance in all the local programs it funds under the Americorps banner. Real leadership will consist of recognizing and rewarding the best local programs, providing inspiration and technical assistance, but resisting the natural bureaucrats' itch to become too directive and intrusive.

There's an ideological barrier -- an increasing number of conservatives, including substantial majorities of Republicans, have been opposing the program either because it's Mr. Clinton's or because they fear an activist federal government.

While conservatives such as commentator William Buckley have long espoused national service, Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute has reaped attention attacking the Americorps as a potentially ''nightmarish'' bureaucracy, feeding Americans' ''entitlement mentality,'' creating ''make-work'' projects and substituting ''state'' defined priorities for individual voluntarism.

Mr. Bandow's concept of voluntarism would ''limit service to those who have the means to perform it,'' replies Americorps chief Eli Segal. Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., argues: ''You can't be practical about full-time youth service without living expenses, health care and GI Bill-like benefits for those who perform it. Follow Bandow's logic and the voluntary military shouldn't get paid for doing its service.''

Even if the conservative argument is faulty, however, the onus of proof is now on Clinton & Co. to run an appealing, almost error-proof program. And that may not be easy because of the last barrier: race and diversity.

The youth attending the Clinton administration's experimental 1993 ''Summer of Service'' campaign, focused at a training retreat near San Francisco, shocked organizers by splitting into black, Hispanic, Native American and homosexual caucuses -- a typical enough occurrence in the America of the '90s, but the polar opposite of what the administration had expected, or hoped for.

Youth service fans like to point, instead, to programs like Boston's now-famed City Year, a year-long service program that not only mixes inner-city and suburban, college and non-college bound youth but has found that the very fact of the social-racial mix functions as a valuable recruiting tool.

In picking its partner organizations this year, the Corporation for National Service has leaned over backward to include as many programs with social and racial mix as it reasonably can.

But keeping up a common front of racial amity may not be simple in these divisive times. Mr. Segal is anxious not to overpromise: ''Just as we won't solve the problems of crime, illiteracy and disease, we won't solve the 400-year-old problem of racism in America.''

But ideological opponents and the press will likely leave the Americorps little margin for error. President Clinton's problem is even tougher than John Kennedy's three decades ago, notes Newsweek's Steven Waldman, who broke the story of the ''Summer of Service'' problems. Kennedy could recruit mostly white, educated Americans into the Peace Corps. Mr. Clinton is trying to use youth's energy and idealism to overcome deep fissures within our own society.

Yet if the effort he has sparked succeeds, it could mean even more to America than the Peace Corps.

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

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