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Service charge: If Clinton wants to make national service work, he's got to think big and cheap.

The most nostalgic link between the Clinton era and the Kennedy administration for me is the rebirth of the early Peace Corps idealism in the promise of a National Service Corps. But between the promise and the deed often falls a shadow. Will President Clinton's call to national service .promote a new generation of genuine social idealism, or wither as the Peace Corps has?

During the Clinton inaugural I visited a burned-out building in Washington, a ruined residue of the rioting after Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder in 1968. There, on a January day 25 years later, hundreds of young people were cleaning, painting, and restoring the building to become a youth policy and action center. Their high-flying exuberance echoed the ethos of the early sixties. Dropping by to bless the event were Eli Segal, the new president's national service director, and Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, who was present at the creation of the Peace Corps.

So was I. The first public speech I ever gave, 20 double-spaced pages in length, advocated the Peace Corps concept. The occasion was an Ann Arbor meeting of "Americans for World Responsibility," whose student founders were lobbying then-can&date John E Kennedy to endorse the cause. As students, we wanted to overthrow all forms of bureaucratic paternalism, and break "out of apathy," in the phrase of the time. Moved by the example of southern students who were fighting segregation, we wanted to extend the same spirit to combatting poverty and hunger around the world.

Later, in October 1960, while a hard rain was falling on Ann Arbor, I stood a few feet from Kennedy on the Michigan Union steps as he pledged to create the Peace Corps. We were shocked and elated. The impossible had happened. We couldn't vote, but a presidential candidate had listened to our call. It was a turning point in politicizing the sixties generation.

In the years that followed, service in the Peace Corps had an important influence on those who spent two or more years among the world's poor. Those volunteers returned to the U.S. with a greater sense of social responsibility-and while abroad nursing, teaching, healing, and building, they clearly communicated to others the example of service and caring.

As the Vietnam War expanded, however, the Peace Corps became a target of cynicism among many student activists, myself included. Sending young Americans abroad to serve humanitarian ends while the U.S. government was bombing and invading Vietnam was too great a contradiction. Many Peace Corps volunteers were protesting the war and questioning the often-corrupt regimes of the countries in which they served. We called for Peace Corps service to be considered a form of conscientious objection, so that members could "build, not bum." But to no avail.

During the Nixon years, the Peace Corps continued to wither. Nixon preferred dispatching older volunteers-frequently technical workers--who wouldn't think of protesting at American embassies. With this bureaucratic blow, the Peace Corps never recovered its early thrust. A shell of its former self, the Peace Corps currently sponsors only 6,100 volunteers, down 62 percent from its peak of 16,000.

At home, as ghettos burned, the administration sent domestic VISTA volunteers into cities like Newark as a "respectable" alternative to more insurgent grass-roots community organizations. They served in largely charitable roles under big city mayors; eventually, even the VISTA program disappeared into the woodwork of the status quo.

Out of service

Clinton's idea has clear domestic foundations growing from the past 25 years. The most significant national domestic program was Jimmy Carter's Young Adult Conservation Corps, which spent $900 million on 270,000 participants in the late seventies. The national VISTA program today supports about 3,000 volunteers; its 1990 budget was $25 million. The California Conservation Corps, created by Governor Jerry Brown in 1976, continues to be popular, supporting 2,000 volunteers yearly at an average cost of $16,500 each. In 1990, the federal government passed the National and Community Service Act, creating a commission that awarded grants amounting to $21.5 million in 1992. The commission is up for federal review this year and will probably be an incubator for the Clinton national service projects. In addition, there are mini-programs that mirror Clinton's proposal to pay for college benefits in exchange for community service: The National Health Service Corps, for example, placed 365 medical graduates in underserved areas last year.

This recent generation of service volunteers has accomplished many worthwhile things, from tree planting to tutoring. But such efforts have been inadequate in the face of growing poverty, illiteracy, and pollution.

In contrast, FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)--the grandparent of serious service efforts--achieved monumental results. Attacked at first as a dangerous social(ist) experiment, between 1933 and 1942 the CCC deployed 3 million participants. (The Peace Corps, by comparison, has supported only 131,000 in 31 years.) The CCC restored 4 million acres of forests and planted 2.2 billion trees, including 233 million in severely eroded lands. Together with the lasting achievements of the Works Progress Administration, the Roosevelt programs dwarf everything since.

With this in mind, what can we expect of national service in the nineties?

There is a positive idealism today among young people, especially students. Clinton's election powerfully reinforced this sense of hope just as Kennedy's election helped spur the student movements of the early sixties. If Clinton doesn't disappoint, he can repeat the inspirational function of the Kennedy years. Headquartering Eli Segal's team directly in the White House is a welcome sign of commitment. But the idealism of the young is fragile, and the task ahead is truly daunting.

There are troubling questions of cost and scope. In Mandate for Change, the Progressive Policy Institute's blueprint which Clinton has endorsed, the national service program projects $2 billion in new college aid to pay for demonstration projects around the country, eventually supporting 200,000 corps members. In March, Clinton announced that he would begin a pilot program to fill 1,000 National Service Corps slots this summer. Those participants will be paid minimum wage for eight weeks of community work and receive a $1,000 stipend toward education or training programs. Clinton hopes to have 100,000 young people in the National Service Corps by 1997, paying for all or part of their education through the service. The details are still being worked out, but there are clues to the ultimate cost. The 1990 National Service Act already authorized $5,000 for vouchers to pay for an undergraduate education at a public university--the Mandate proposal calls for $10,000 annually. Why? Spiralling college costs, which have increased faster than income levels for 20 consecutive years.

But if nothing is done to contain college costs, even the $10,000 vouchers will be insufficient to pay the real costs of a degree at most public universities. Tuition and fees alone average over $8,000 per year, and the cost of housing and food are substantial. For example, a four-year degree at a University of California campus (which takes most students five or six years to complete) costs about $12,000 yearly in fees, books, food, and housing. As a general rule, then, two years of national service would pay for only half the cost of the four-year degree. Further, the Mandate authors hope the service program will eventually replace existing sources of federal student aid. That would only intensify the present affordability crisis for thousands of students, since the only money available from the government would be insufficient to cover the degree's cost. The numbers just do not add up. Clinton will have to settle for a permanently small pilot program or face much higher budget costs if national service is tied to paying for college.

In the meantime, there is no sign that the Clinton administration is planning to challenge waste in higher education, much less consider cost-containment remedies. But such consideration is absolutely necessary if the service idea is to work. The higher education lobby is very skilled at justifying the allocation of every penny to their present priorities, as if academic freedom--not to mention the national culture--would collapse if government regulators peeked into the ivory tower.

The Stanford University scandal involving the misuse of federal funds, however, has opened the issue on Capitol Hill in recent years. The shocking $2.4 million 1992 retirement package for the outgoing University of California president, which could have paid student aid for 1,200 needy students, angered the public and continues to be a political issue in California. As a result, politicians may finally be willing to look at waste, efficiency, and priorities in higher education.

The administration, in its hunt for dollars to connect service and school, should immediately redirect the $800 million in annual federal work-study money into community services like tutoring. If college students were paid work-study funds for tutoring in public schools, they might &scourage potential dropouts from hitting the streets. If professors gave tutors academic credit for the work, college students might be able to get their four-year degrees on schedule. Instead, most of this money presently pays for cheap student labor in places like college cafeterias, not the original intent of work related to study. A timid Congress has required only 5 percent of such money in fiscal year 1994 to go for community service.

Turning green

What should be the mission of national service? Should it focus on domestic issues to the exclusion of international issues? Should environmental restoration be more central than ever before? The focus of Mandate, echoed by Clinton, is on a purely domestic national service agenda. (The Peace Corps would continue to operate in its present form.) This is more than a reflection of the president's emphasis on domestic priorities; it's also a budgetary matter. The National Service Corps must provide services more cheaply than the government or the private sector. Otherwise, according to the Mandate authors, "there is no basis for it." Nor will it be permitted to compete with union work. Service corps members may well be circumscribed just to those tiers of work that don't conflict with unions, and this is a problem the administration must address.

As Clinton knows, police unions will resist the idea of a Police Corps volunteer taking work from professional officers, and the teachers' unions will balk at a Teacher Corps teacher doing instructional work--even if the service corps member is more energetic, equally competent, and cheaper. Of course, there still will be plenty of opportunities to volunteer in a country whose social services are collapsing: Feeding the homeless or caring for the in-home elderly are examples. Unfortunately, the danger is that national service will be narrowed to do-gooder tasks which do not challenge the public or private organizational status quo. And nothing disillusions a service volunteer faster than make-work.

Limiting service to the domestic arena fits with Clinton's priorities like child immunization programs but retreats from the necessity of renewed international environmental idealism. Since the inception of the Peace Corps, world poverty and pollution have multiplied in countries whose populations have doubled. With the end of the Cold War's strict nation-state rivalries, is it time for a global effort to mobilize young people to meet the environmental crisis? The effort could be like the CCC of the thirties on a global scale: Volunteers could restore rapidly eroding topsoil, clean up polluted streams, and undertake massive tree planting projects. Called an "Earth Corps," it could succeed the Peace Corps as the embodiment of a new generation's greatest challenge. The idea springs from many sources, including top leaders of the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit, environmentalist David Brower, wilderness advocate Sally Ranney, Mexican novelist Homero Afidjis, and Jerry Brown. It has attracted the interest of AI Gore and, reportedly, of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As an example of what an Earth Corps could do, the Smithsonian's Thomas Lovejoy is promoting the idea of offering graduate scholarships at U.S. universities for students in developing countries who will return home as conservation specialists in tropical forests. Such students would meet a critical need in staffing restoration projects, supporting indigenous community development, and keeping inventories of species threatened with extinction.

The Earth Corps--inspired by and including Clinton's National Service Corps--could be operated in connection with the United Nations Environmental Programme. The money is already in place in the Global Environmental Facility created in 1990 by the major industrial powers to confront global eco-crises. The new environmental undersecretary of State, Timothy Wirth, could be assigned to bridge the American and UN roles.

If Clinton wants to make his mark and seal the affection of the younger generation, he will follow the better instincts of his own youth and build a bold program. If he does, he will invent a new form of government-supported activism and assert American leadership in facing the global ecological crisis. That is what William James must have meant in 1910 when he issued the firs,t call for national service, describing it immodestly as "the moral equivalent of war."
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Title Annotation:President Bill Clinton
Author:Hayden, Tom
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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