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AmeriCorps Sparks Debate on Federal Service Role

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Washington

Colin Yost got more than he bargained for by joining a Portland, Ore., AmeriCorps program that weatherizes low-income homes.

Besides earning minimum-wage pay and $4,725 to help cover graduate school, Mr. Yost--along with 20,000 other AmeriCorps members--became a symbol in the growing debate over the federal government's role in addressing social problems.

Mr. Yost has also taken on a more overt political role as a spokesman for AmeriCorps, arguing in an interview that the $376 million spent this year on the program is a good investment and that retaining it should be a "no brainer" decision.

He was one of four AmeriCorps members invited to sit near the First Lady during President Clinton's State of the Union speech last month, dramatizing Mr. Clinton's commitment to the program. Mr. Clinton has called AmeriCorps "citizenship at its best."

The campaign in support of the service program was spurred by fears that the new Republican majority in Congress may kill it.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., recently called AmeriCorps "coercive volunteerism." He is joined by other conservatives who want to end AmeriCorps funding even though its first members were sworn in just five months ago.

"It is inconsistent for President Clinton to promote simultaneously a reinvented government and a government-imposed, government-paid volunteerism," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement.

Mr. Grassley has joined Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., a leading supporter of the program, in calling for a General Accounting Office review of AmeriCorps. The report is expected this spring.

"This is about the distinction over what the federal government should butt out of and what it should be involved in," said John P. Walters, the president of the New Citizenship Project, a Washington-based conservative advocacy group that has played a prominent role in the community-service debate.

Beyond AmeriCorps

The National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993 created AmeriCorps and the nonprofit Corporation for National Service that runs it.

AmeriCorps members get health benefits, the minimum wage, and an education grant in exchange for one year of work on community projects in education, health, safety, and other areas.

The corporation also runs Learn and Serve America, a grant program supporting service-learning efforts in grade schools, high schools and universities, and the Senior Companion Program, which provides stipends to participants for giving non-medical care to older adults.

But because AmeriCorps is the most visible of the programs--and one that Mr. Clinton views as a signature achievement--debate over it has overshadowed other service programs also at risk.

In part, that is why one Democratic strategist said proponents should try to refocus the debate toward a more general discussion of government-financed incentives for community service.

"This is a challenge to any vision and any federally sponsored help for national service," said Ed Kilgore, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank connected to the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate group Mr. Clinton helped found.

Calling the issue a D.L.C. "holy war," Mr. Kilgore said AmeriCorps is a unique national demonstration project, and not an "unaffordable luxury" as some portray it.

"National service is really critical to rekindling some sort of civil society," he said.

But Mr. Walters, in a letter to "conservative reformers," argues that citizenship and service can be encouraged without federal funding, which he calls a new form of "big-government liberalism."

As battle lines are drawn, proponents are gearing up for a fight that will focus on influencing public perceptions as well as directly lobbying Congress.

Public Relations

Eli Segal, the chief executive officer for the Corporation for National Service, predicts AmeriCorps will shine as local programs gain attention. In that vein, he has publicly asked Mr. Gingrich to visit an AmeriCorps site.

The campaign in behalf of national service may also get a boost from a partnership with the Miss America organization that was announced last month.

"Not only will each Miss America and state title-holder select an issue to champion, but the organization will champion community service as our institutional platform," said Leonard Horn, the organization's chief executive officer.

And proponents can count on some support from Republican ranks. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a former Peace Corps volunteer, said that the record needs to be corrected about AmeriCorps.

"When I read some of the criticism, it is so inaccurate as to defy logic," he said in an interview.

In one example noted by AmeriCorps proponents, the columnist George F. Will recently cited an Omaha newspaper's claim that the state of Nebraska used a $457,622 AmeriCorps grant to recruit 23 members.

Corporation officials responded with a letter in which they call the assertion "old and inaccurate." The officials said Nebraska spent less than $1,000 in recruiting and that the figure cited by Mr. Will included living allowances and other program costs.

The letter also rejected a claim in Mr. Will's column that AmeriCorps members in San Francisco rallied against a provision of the Clinton Administration's crime bill that aimed to strengthen penalties for repeat offenders. Advocacy and political activities "aren't part of the AmeriCorps and will lead to a cut-off in funding," the letter states.

A Broader Vision

As the debate unfolds, community-service proponents are trying to convey a message that promotes a broader vision of service.

"The bottom line is, we feel that the federal government should be one of many investors in the field," said Michael Evans, the director of constituent programs for the Washington-based Youth Service America, an umbrella organization of service programs.

"One concern is that if you let AmeriCorps define what service is, you isolate it and give the public the wrong view," said Fran Rothstein, the Washington representative for the Youth Volunteer Corps of America.

In a more direct effort to protect federal funding for service programs, the National and Community Service Coalition is surveying its members for information it can bring to lawmakers.

"If they're sincere in saying they have concerns on return for investment, we have information on that," said Jim Pitofsky, the coalition's president.

Youth Service America and the Campus Outreach Opportunity League have also slated April 25 for the annual National Youth Service Day. Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., who heads the Senate panel with jurisdiction over AmeriCorps, will be the honorary co-chairwoman of the event.

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