Advocates Worry Cuts Will Kill Service Projects
Rita Cole was the oldest of nine children, and dropped out of junior high school to care for her siblings. She tried an adult-education class, where others laughed at her when she read aloud. Then a friend told her about the Family Literacy Corps program.
"I love it here. I'll come this summer if they have it," said Ms. Cole, who attends a literacy program at Horatio Hacket Elementary School here. "I know I'll get my degree some day and graduate."
But Maureen Rybnik, her teacher, worries that Ms. Cole's future in the program will be determined more by politics than by the 45-year-old woman's dedication.
Ms. Rybnik is an AmeriCorps member, working in Philadelphia's literacy project under a federal grant. And anyone tuned in to Washington politics knows that AmeriCorps, President Clinton's signature national-service initiative, is under fire from conservative lawmakers.
Some critics argue that AmeriCorps--whose 20,000 members get a $660 monthly living stipend, health-care and child-care benefits, and a $4,725 education grant for one year of work--discourages "true," unpaid volunteerism. Others say such service is simply not a federal concern.
But, if federal funding is choked off, programs like the Philadelphia Literacy Corps will probably suffocate.
"I think everyone believes this program is the way to go, that it works," said Ms. Rybnik, a 1994 Harvard University graduate and one of six AmeriCorps members in the Philadelphia program. "But because of politics, critics have to blind themselves to the fact that it's working."
Her class includes a husband and wife who study in the same school with their children, and a mother and her adult son--both of whom dropped out of high school.
Karen Young works for the Mayor's Council on Literacy in Philadelphia and directs the Family Literacy Corps. She said the $80,000 AmeriCorps grant, along with $25,000 in local contributions, allowed the council to start five family-education programs for parents at their children's schools. The curriculum ranges from grammar to sound eating habits.
"We are in communities without these services, therefore we are making a dent," Ms. Young argued. "One woman told me she never read before, now she's picking up a newspaper."
But that "dent" might not be big enough--or come fast enough--to quiet the critics.
House Republicans have passed a 1995 spending-cut bill that would slash $416 million of $575 million that the Corporation for National Service has left this fiscal year to run AmeriCorps and the school-based service program called Learn and Serve America. A companion Senate bill would cut $210 million. The bills are expected to go to a conference committee this month.
If those cuts are rejected--or if the President vetoes the bill--opponents will have another chance as the 1996 budget is drafted.
Conservative critics have campaigned against the program in the news media, while the Clinton Administration has sought to portray it as a cost-effective way to stimulate local community service and lure private contributions.
"If large numbers of Americans are already volunteering, why should government create new programs?" said Allyson M. Tucker, who manages the Center for Educational Law and Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "AmeriCorps is government intrusion on working programs."
And Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, argued that it is dishonest to pay someone to do a job and call it service.
"Effectively, this is a jobs program," he said. "There is no reason to believe that AmeriCorps is not taking resources away from a lot of other good things."
Sonia Rodriguez-Perez, the principal of James R. Ludlow School in Philadelphia, disagrees. She tried for a year to get a volunteer to run an English-as-a-second-language program for Hispanic parents, but it did not happen until an AmeriCorps member arrived.
"We need to get the word out about AmeriCorps because critics are always trying to take something away," she said.
The prospect of losing the Philadelphia program also angers Joan Burnes, a 23-year-old Syracuse University graduate and AmeriCorps member who tutors participants in math.
She decried the potential effect of funding cuts "not for me, but for our learners, who get flooded with six-month programs that are gone because of someone's whim."
But the AmeriCorps debate revolves around numbers as much as philosophy.
In an editorial for The Hill, a a newspaper that covers Congress, Ms. Tucker contended that AmeriCorps members cost taxpayers about $30,000 each in direct and indirect costs, and that most are from well-to-do families that do not need financial help.
The Corporation for National Service puts the per-member cost at $17,600, and estimates the average household income of an AmeriCorps member at $33,461.
The General Accounting Office, the Congressional investigatory agency, is expected to review those numbers in an audit next month
According to a G.A.O. official, the per-member cost to the government could amount to as much as $25,000, because the audit will count administrative costs of federal agencies that manage AmeriCorps members, as well as federal grants that states have used as matching contributions to get AmeriCorps grants.
"The central question is how much taxpayer money this costs," said Wayne B. Upshaw, the assistant director of the education- and employment-issue area of the G.A.O. The report will not study program effectiveness or benefits, he said.
Living With Uncertainty
The Washington debate has trickled down to the state level, where commissions oversee local AmeriCorps programs.
Lynn Thornton, the executive director of the Georgia Commission on National and Community Service, says the turmoil has sparked new interest in AmeriCorps but is forcing her to avoid long-term promises.
"We don't know how much money we will have or how many programs we can fund," she said.
Her commission has approved eight AmeriCorps programs, for which it receives $1.8 million. It also received $180,000 in planning grants, and the state contributed $180,000.
Ms. Thornton worries that increased uncertainty will deter private donors who contribute millions of dollars nationwide to various service programs connected with AmeriCorps.
For example, Nike Inc., the athletic-shoe company, announced last week that it will give $150,000 in cash grants to AmeriCorps programs. "They have the people who can go out and help create some really good things," said a company spokeswoman, Melinda Gable.
Some community-service advocates, meanwhile, have concerns about how AmeriCorps might affect public perceptions.
Ellen Albee, who sits on the Minnesota Commission on National and Community Service and manages program development for the Lutheran Brotherhood, worries that people may see AmeriCorps as representing all service and volunteerism, possibly overshadowing programs that do not offer rewards.
"I think young people see AmeriCorps members getting a stipend and uniforms, and say, 'I want to be one of them,'" said Ms. Albee, who was in Washington last week to participate in a National Volunteer Week event.
Still, she stressed that AmeriCorps provides a "solid core of people you can count on" and argued that federal money can help get programs started and attract private funds.
And the service community is generally supportive of President Clinton's idea.
"AmeriCorps is an outstanding program, and we should do what we can to keep it," said Stella Mendoza, a member of the California Commission on Improving Life Through Service.
A 'Big Tent'
Supporters say that AmeriCorps should be seen as part of a "big tent" of volunteers--from parents who read to students one hour a week to full-time AmeriCorps members.
And if ever that big tent was visible, it was last week, when AmeriCorps members joined scores of volunteer and service groups in celebrating National Volunteer Week--and in using the celebration to try to drum up support for the federal initiative.
President Clinton lauded AmeriCorps members in speeches during the week, and highlighted individual members at some events on his agenda.
Matthew Hunter, age 8, kicked off a National Youth Service Day event in Washington by telling an audience of 800 youths that he reads books and works on art projects two hours a month at the Meridian Nursing Center in Randallstown, Md.
Said the Hebbville Elementary School 3rd grader: "You don't have to be a grown-up to help your community."
"We're trying to get out the basic message that service by youth is a national treasure," said Roger Landrum, the president of Youth Service America, a Washington umbrella organization for service groups and a Youth Service Day co-sponsor along with the Nickelodeon cable-television network and the Lutheran Brotherhood.
Vol. 14, Issue 32