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A Bargain for America

June 21, 2003

Sacramento college student Ernesto Mendez visits four to seven homes a day, teaching teenage mothers parenting skills and trying to protect children in struggling families. His labors and those of other AmeriCorps volunteers working for the California Alliance for Prevention have substantially reduced the risk of child abuse in the often troubled families being served, an independent study reports.

The social services group that employs Mendez is just one of dozens of economical, successful programs operating in California under the AmeriCorps banner. Nationally, AmeriCorps' 2,100 programs and 50,000 nominally paid volunteers do everything from tutor children to build affordable housing.

Despite AmeriCorps' acknowledged success as a sort of domestic Peace Corps, Congress is eviscerating the organization. In California, the number of volunteers is expected to be cut from 6,000 to as few as 825 for the next fiscal year. Dozens of programs will be slashed or eliminated, depriving the poor of services they desperately need.

The idea of young people serving their country holds universal appeal, but the specifics of how it should happen have gotten mired in politics and accounting disputes.

Though President Bush has championed the idea that young Americans should devote two years of service to their country and has called for AmeriCorps' expansion, he hasn't made it a priority to push Congress to fully support the program. Republican critics argue that AmeriCorps workers are hardly volunteers if they get paid, however little; these critics obviously expect free work. But how many students can afford to give two years without any pay? And politically, it doesn't help that President Clinton launched the program.

Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) want to provide a $200-million supplemental appropriation to save the program, and they also have a plan to expand it. But these measures will have a difficult time getting past conservative critics when budget time rolls around.

Besides its other virtues, AmeriCorps gives the young an invaluable opportunity to serve the nation at an opportune moment: In light of the lackluster job market, many college students and recent graduates gladly would give two years to an AmeriCorps program like Teach for America, which offers a $4,725 annual award to help pay for college tuition and loans, in addition to a stipend for living expenses.

Bush should lean on GOP opponents, not about ideology but about thrift. He can remind them that Mendez and his peers at the California Alliance for Prevention may have made a few thousand dollars for a lot of hard work but that their labor in the pathfinding California program saved taxpayers up to $10 million in child welfare services in 2002, according to Sacramento consulting firm Minicucci Associates. Who wants to turn away from that kind of bargain?

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