Service in jeopardy

March 29, 1995

The rush in Congress to undo the welfare state has not been distinguished by pinpoint aim. Along with drastic changes in everything from welfare benefits to school lunches, House Republicans also voted to gut national service programs that had been enacted with bipartisan support.

If it seems strange to undo programs like AmeriCorps, which provides full-time workers to help spark wider volunteer efforts in communities across America, the explanation is pure politics. President Clinton, who expanded a national service program enacted under President Bush, has identified his administration with these efforts, lauding service as the kind of government program he wants to encourage. That's enough to make it a tempting target for partisan Republicans.

We all know how politicians relish the game of power, but in this case Republicans might be well-advised to consider what would be lost if the deep cuts proposed for the Corporation for National Service are allowed to stand. In Maryland alone, the House cuts of $416 million in this year's appropriation would require the immediate closure of the AmeriCorps program headquartered at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, sending more than 200 workers home in the middle of their year of service. What message does that send to young Americans eager to make a deal with their country -- offering a year of service for minimal wages, plus a voucher for college or vocational training?

The recisions would break faith with national service workers, but they would also be a major setback for voluntarism. In many cases, AmeriCorps workers are used to set up volunteer programs that create new opportunities for part-time, unpaid community workers. In Montgomery County, national service workers have made it possible to recruit and train more volunteers and to coordinate their donated services. One result is that thousands of crime victims in that jurisdiction are served by volunteers who help connect them with services that speed their emotional and financial recovery from crime.

The 1990s model of community service is all the things Americans say they want their government to be: It is designed to meet local needs; it encourages ideals the country holds dear; it is not extravagant; and it uses national service workers to create hundreds of new opportunities for citizens who want to volunteer for their community.

There is enough cynicism in government. Congress doesn't need to contribute to it by gutting a program that feeds the ideals this country sorely needs.

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