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Thousand Points of Light

October 09, 1988

George Bush had a neat idea the other day, one of his thousand points of light. Get the affluent suburban teen-agers who munch Dove bars in front of MTV to get on the bus down to the ghetto to help out the poor folk. Bush's proposed volunteer program of Youth Engaged in Service to America is part of the vice president's kinder, gentler nation designed to fill in where liberal spending programs have failed.

Volunteerism is essential in American society. It is particularly commendable in terms of the most disadvantaged youth in the grimy urban centers of America where too many young people suffer poverty, broken homes, poor health, dangerous schools and constant invitations into lives of drugs, gangs, guns and crime. There have been many volunteer programs attempting to do just this sort of thing for years and there are many untold success stories. The need persists for more. But the most urgent necessity in the ghetto remains the basic elements of survival, of rent money, the gas and electric bills, food, a proper education, finding a job and living without fear.

Presumably, Bush's Youth Engaged in Service to American would provide some sense of purpose for the more fortunate young people. As Bush put it in his speech in Sacramento on Tuesday: "Do they know they're fortunate? Do they have a sense of thanks? Of citizenship? Do they realize that perhaps they ought to be thinking of giving something back? Or are they cut off from their affluence, removed from the cares and concerns of others?"

In fact, perhaps the young people do have a concern for helping others in need to a degree that might surprise their parents, who often resisted sending their youths to the same schools as their poor urban cousins. Maybe they would be willing to spend some hours each week working with less-advantaged young people and senior citizens. Certainly their parents would be dubious about sending them onto streets where many adults fear to walk, even in daytime. With the proper facilities and trained leadership, however, some real progress might be made.

But such programs are no substitute for the very basic needs that can only be provided by government. In his address to the Comstock Club in Sacramento, Bush repeated the old canard that federal poverty programs only made things worse, a variation of President Reagan's erroneous quip that America declared war on poverty and poverty won. Some were misguided and did not achieve their goals. But basic programs such as welfare, food stamps, aid to women, children and infants and Medicaid are all that allow the poorest of the poor to survive. And cuts during the Reagan Administration have let hundreds of thousands of people slip into poverty. Just the other day, Republicans in the Senate blocked an increase in the minimum wage from the present level of about $6,700 a year.

Some liberals will sneer at his proposal, Bush predicted. They should not sneer. Bush's intentions surely are sincere, even if there was a tinge of noblesse oblige to the manner in which he sketched out his program. But many Americans may properly be angry at an Administration that still treats with disdain the many legitimate and successful programs that do help the poor.

Bush said he wants the young men and women of the tree-lined suburbs to get on a bus or subway and go into the cities where the want is. But this should not be a one-way busing project. Just as important, perhaps, is to get the poor children out of the ghetto at least for a few hours at a time, so they can, indeed, see thousands of points of light.

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