Volunteers for Money

January 29, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton's turbid State of the Union address was a metaphor for modern government -- sprawling, metastasizing, undisciplined. It underscored the fact that his administration now is politically almost harmless, but is aesthetically excruciating.

It was heavily larded -- exactly the right word, that -- with semi-conservative words about cutting taxes, spending and regulations. However, regarding two matters Mr. Clinton considers crucial -- the AmeriCorps ''national service'' program and the minimum wage -- the address was half-baked and half-hearted liberalism.

AmeriCorps, says the president, will revive American volunteerism. The approximately 80 million Americans who volunteer their time to religious and civic organizations may wonder who needs reviving and how much it matters whether AmeriCorps eventually produces 100,000 more volunteers. Today 2.9 million of America's 80 million volunteers are ages 18 to 25, the ages of AmeriCorps ''volunteers.''

To plain-speaking Americans, a volunteer is someone who contributes unpaid labor. Mr. Clinton's ''volunteers'' will be paid a $7,400 annual stipend, plus $9,450 worth of college expenses over two years. And this is not all that the little puddle of government-manufactured ''volunteers'' will cost taxpayers.

In addition to the health and child-care entitlements for AmeriCorps members, and AmeriCorps' Washington bureaucracy, money is spent to locate ''volunteers'' to take AmeriCorps money. The Omaha World-Herald says that AmeriCorps gave Nebraska's state government a $457,622 grant recruit 23 AmeriCorps members. That $19,896.60 per recruit calls into question the effectiveness of the $1.7 million AmeriCorps paid a Washington PR firm for national advertising.

According to the New Citizenship Project, a conservative advocacy group, of AmeriCorps' first 20,000 ''volunteers,'' 1,200 are working for agencies of the federal government. The New Citizenship Project warns that AmeriCorps is ripe for politicization, citing a Washington Monthly report that a 1993 pilot project became an exercise in identity politics and political correctness, developing ethnic and homosexual caucuses. And the Los Angeles Times reported that a 1994 pilot project in San Francisco used its ''volunteers'' to protest ''three-strikes-and-you're-out'' crime legislation.

President Clinton calls AmeriCorps the achievement ''I would say I was most proud of.'' No minimum-wage increase will be rival for that title.

In 1992 candidate Clinton endorsed increasing the minimum wage. During 1993 and 1994, when he had a congressional majority that would have done it, he did not ask for it, primarily because some sensible Democrats told him it was a dumb idea. Al From, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which once advertised Mr. Clinton as a New Democrat, says of the minimum-wage proposal: ''It's anachronistic, it's a loser, it's got no bite with the middle class. And it screams old Democrat.''

Now that there is a Congress that Mr. Clinton knows will not enact an increase, he calls it urgent. However, during Tuesday night's oration, when he was pitilessly detailed about almost everything, he remained reticent about how much the minimum wage should be increased. Leaving aside the unwisdom of government telling employers what to pay employees, it is generally true that when you increase the cost of something, people buy less of it. There is evidence that is true of labor at the low end of the wage scale.

The first federal minimum wage -- 25 cents an hour -- was enacted in 1938. Since then, the longest time between increases was from 1981 to 1990. During that span teen-age unemployment (teen-agers are a third of all minimum-wage earners) fell from 23.2 percent to 15.5 percent, and black teen-age unemployment fell from 48 percent to 31 percent. Then the forces of compassion struck, raising the minimum wage twice, in 1990 and 1991. In 1992 teen-age unemployment was up to 20 percent.

Now, it is problematic establishing causation for any phenomenon as complex and varied as joblessness. And some studies, including one by associates of the current secretary of labor, purport to show that the minimum wage can be increased somewhat without increasing unemployment. The question is academic because a former academic -- Rep. Dick Armey, the ex-professor of economics who now is majority leader -- says he will oppose an increase ''with every fiber of my being,'' and he will have much company.

But this is of more than academic interest: The minimum wage is now $4.25 an hour. Mr. Clinton is said to be thinking about seeking $5 an hour. The New Citizenship Project calculates that AmeriCorps ''volunteers'' earn more than $7 an hour.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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