President Pursues National Service On Three Fronts
The new program to reward young people for community service with minimum-wage stipends and educational aid, created when President Clinton signed the National and Community Service Act in September, is a small one by federal standards.
A far cry from Mr. Clinton's campaign promise to allow all students to pay off college loans through service--which could cost as much as $40 billion a year--the program will provide $371 million next year for some 20,000 participants.
However, Administration officials view the initiative as more than just another new program. It is arguably central to the Administration's domestic agenda--the embodiment of one of Mr. Clinton's favorite rhetorical themes, and a popular idea that buttresses his claim to the political mainstream.
National service "begins with the President's view of rights and responsibilities,'' said Eli Segal, the president and chief executive officer of the new Corporation forNational and Community Service, which will oversee federal service programs. "National service is one of the best prisms through which we can see those responsibilities.''
The service program is part of a three-pronged strategy to prod Americans into service and urge them to become accountable for their communities, according to William Galston, a deputy domestic-policy adviser to Mr. Clinton, who said the President will personally emphasize those themes.
That emphasis from the Presidential bully pulpit has already taken a small, fragmented service movement and catapulted it into the national spotlight.
It has also scored political points for Mr. Clinton, who duly noted the enthusiastic applause the idea elicited on the campaign trail in 1992.
The service program is linked philosophically to the Administration's upcoming welfare-reform plan, another initiative that strikes a chord among middle-class voters and helps position Mr. Clinton as a centrist "new Democrat.''
"The idea of service for benefit transcends narrow partisan politics,'' said Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociology professor with ties to the moderate Democratic Leadership Council who advised the Administration on the legislation.
"Clinton is always trying to keep those bridges in good repair,'' Mr. Moskos says of the President's former colleagues in the D.L.C.
The most visible part of the three-pronged strategy to which Mr. Galston referred is the establishment of the corporation run by Mr. Segal and the new aid-for-service program, called "AmeriCorps,'' that it will oversee.
In addition to AmeriCorps, the corporation will also administer volunteer programs that had been run by ACTION, including VISTA; Serve-America, a service-learning program for precollegiate students enacted in 1990; and a new Civilian Community Corps, which will house 1,000 youths on military bases for yearlong service projects.
One-third of grants under the AmeriCorps program will be distributed directly by the corporation on a competitive basis, while the rest will be funneled through state commissions to local groups.
In exchange for participating in service projects, young people will receive minimum-wage stipends, as well as college vouchers or reductions in their student-loan debts.
The corporation published regulations for state commissions in the Nov. 18 Federal Register, and rules for grant applications are expected next month.
Corporation officials plan to launch a traveling "road show'' of technical assistance for interested grant applicants in January. In May, they plan to announce the winners of those grants that will be distributed directly by the corporation and launch an information campaign to recruit the first 20,000 youth participants.
The agency will also sponsor a summer-service program similar to one the Administration mounted last summer to promote the service idea. The 1994 "summer of safety'' program will focus on crime prevention.
When the first AmeriCorps participants are ready to begin service next September, the President will officially launch the program with a high-profile ceremony.
Mr. Segal said the corporation hopes to build an infrastructure of state and local service groups and recruit partners in business, government, and philanthropy.
"Not only will we be getting things done in our communities, we'll be building a citizen ethic,'' Mr. Segal said. "The President is very committed to using the bully pulpit to drive home the message.''
A Presidential Challenge
This second prong of the Administration's service strategy--using the Presidential bully pulpit to promote individual involvement and personal responsibility--has been evident in Mr. Clinton's recent speeches, especially his pronouncements on crime prevention.
For example, when he spoke at Memphis's Mason Temple Church of God in Christ 25 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech there, Mr. Clinton said "the ravages of crime and drugs and violence'' are "due to the breakdown of the family, the community, and the disappearance of jobs.''
"Unless we say some of this cannot be done by government because we have to reach deep inside to the values, the spirit, the soul, and the truth of human natures, none of the other things we seek to do will ever take us where we need to go,'' the President said.
In an Oct. 23 speech at ceremonies marking the 150th anniversary of B'Nai B'rith, Mr. Clinton noted that the Jewish service organization recently opened a senior citizens' center in his hometown of Hope, Ark.
"Believe it or not, those acts that help individuals are the things that I try hardest to keep in mind as President when making laws and making policies, so the spirit which animates people in their daily lives, helping each other one on one, can drive the Presidency,'' he said. "It was that spirit which lead me to propose and Congress to enact a new program for national service.''
Introducing a report on youth statistics last month, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley struck a similar note, admonishing parents for allowing their children to watch too much television and generally failing to supervise them.
Mr. Galston said there is more to come on this front.
"The President has challenged, and will continue to challenge, our citizens,'' he said.
The third part of the Clinton Administration strategy is to make the federal government an example. The White House has called on every federal agency to develop a plan to spark service among its employees and within the programs it administers, and is allowing them to compete for the grants that will be made directly by the corporation.
"The government as a whole has been put on notice,'' Mr. Galston said.
A Federal Example
Terry K. Peterson, a counselor to Mr. Riley, said the Education Department plans to integrate service with its "goals 2000'' education-reform strategy and the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by incorporating language promoting the use of parents and other volunteers.
The agency is also looking for ways to encourage schools to use volunteers in early-childhood education programs, literacy and job-training efforts, and as tutors and mentors for high school students, said Mr. Peterson, a former Peace Corps volunteer and the head of a department task force on service.
"This is more than words on paper,'' he said. "This is a new approach to looking at federal policy.''
The Agriculture Department is exploring the creation of a "hunger corps'' that would go door-to-door and to schools to explain such existing programs as the food-supplemental program for women, infants, and children.
Joel S. Berg, the agency's national-service coordinator, said the agency is also considering a welfare-reform effort that would help poor people become self-sufficient through "micro-enterprises'' and community-development banks.
"Even if we don't get a cent'' of the 1994 grant funds, Mr. Berg said, "it doesn't matter because it forces us agencies to compete and not act like bureaucrats.''
If each agency were allocated a set amount to develop such programs, "we would have had less incentive to bust our you-know-whats to make it work,'' he added.
Pressure To Deliver
Meanwhile, educators and advocates who have preached the value of service for some time are assuming their higher profile with both enthusiasm and apprehension.
Groups that have run service programs on shoestring budgets and that have found themselves serving as models for the new Administration are now in the best position to compete for service grants.
As a representative of City Year, a well-regarded service program in Boston, put it: "We're a small group going national very fast.''
Samuel Halperin, the director of the American Youth Policy Forum, noted that Mr. Clinton's emphasis on service has piqued the interest of individuals, civic organizations, businesses, and foundations.
"Before that,'' Mr. Halperin said, "it had been primarily a narrow, youth-sharing movement.''
But the pride of being recognized is mixed with a feeling of unease, as longtime advocates wonder if the service effort will remain a high-profile concern, whether the "foundation'' Mr. Segal spoke of will be poured, and whether the coalitions the service community has created to provide a unified voice will hold.
"[We're] very pleased and a little apprehensive because now we have to produce,'' Mr. Halperin said.
Staff Writer Jessica Portner contributed to this story.
Vol. 13, Issue 15