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AmeriCorps the Beautiful

Here's how to reform Clinton's national service program for the Bush era

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 2001 • By LESLIE LENKOWSKY
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OF ALL THE SURVIVORS of the Clinton era, the most unlikely may be AmeriCorps, the administration's "national service" program. The idea of enlisting an army of young people to devote a year or two to community betterment for minimal compensation had been around for close to a century, with little to show for it. When President Clinton proposed his version of the idea in 1993, it met opposition from conservatives (who objected to "paying people to volunteer") and only lukewarm support from liberals (who preferred to spend the money on traditional social programs). Since getting underway in 1994, AmeriCorps has been beset with management problems and charges that its participants -- or "members," in the corps lingo -- were improperly involved in political activities. Proposals to eliminate its funding have been an annual ritual of the budget process, partly because Congress quickly learned it could get the White House to make deals on other items if it threatened to end AmeriCorps.

Yet today, the program has a $ 330 million budget and annually enrolls over 40,000 people, 17 years of age or older, in 2,600 projects throughout the United States. Even with the end of the Clinton administration, AmeriCorps is unlikely to fade away. Because of its presence in communities, it has built a base of support among governors, mayors, and charity officials. Seeing its impact in their districts, once skeptical congressmen and senators have reassessed their opinions of the program. During the campaign, George W. Bush indicated he saw no reason to eliminate it if it were working well (and even proposed a major expansion of a sister program, the Senior Service Corps, which enlists older people for part-time assignments).

But is AmeriCorps working well? Notwithstanding the program's much-publicized problems, there's little doubt that its members are performing a great deal of useful service: tutoring, mentoring, assisting elderly and disabled people, cleaning up polluted waterways, organizing neighborhood crime patrols, and much more. They also add often sorely needed staff to charities -- including faith-based ones, such as Habitat for Humanity and the Sisters of Notre Dame. So far, there's no evidence that the stipend for living expenses -- or the $ 4,725 per year educational award at the end of the tour of duty (a la the GI Bill) -- dampens the willingness of AmeriCorps members to volunteer without pay after their service.

But AmeriCorps is still a long way from realizing its goal of systematically mobilizing civic energies to address the nation's grass-roots problems. The number of participants is still relatively small. (The Clinton administration had plans for more than doubling the figure to 100,000, but even that is a tiny fraction of college-age young people.) Charities that could badly use help often have a hard time enlisting it from AmeriCorps, partly because they are required to put up their own money to match what the federal government pays. And despite a network of state commissions aimed at making the program responsive to local concerns, complaints about too much direction from Washington are frequently heard.

These shortcomings are largely due to the fact that AmeriCorps looks more like a traditional Washington social program than the prototype for "reinvented" government the Clinton administration proclaimed it would be. Indeed, AmeriCorps does not really recruit thousands of would-be members each year and send them out to do good throughout the country. Instead, both the Washington office and the state commissions conduct grant competitions among nonprofit organizations. The winners then recruit people who want to be AmeriCorps members, including any who may have first contacted the national office.

Among the advantages of this way of operating is that it restricts AmeriCorps to a group of organizations that know the ropes of government contracting and can be readily monitored. It also enables both Washington and the state offices to set priorities for what participants will do. During the 1996 campaign, for example, President Clinton made a commitment to increase the number of AmeriCorps members helping children learn to read. The ensuing round of grant competitions reflected this.

As a result, charities that address other problems were left contending over a smaller pot of AmeriCorps money. And young people who wished to serve their country by helping, say, the elderly or a neighborhood development effort had fewer opportunities. Some even had to incur the additional cost of moving to a different city.