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Will Bush Stand by Volunteers Who Heeded His Call?

Commentary

Washington politics has put the AmeriCorps program in jeopardy.

September 24, 2003|Robert D. Putnam | Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, is a member of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation and author of "Better Together" (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Five years ago, Haven Acres -- a largely African American neighborhood of Tupelo, Miss. -- showed familiar signs of urban decay: gangs, drugs, trash, dilapidated housing, for-sale signs, distrust and hopelessness. Haven Acres was so dangerous that armed cops were afraid to enter the neighborhood unless they had backup.

But last month I walked at dusk through a miraculously transformed Haven Acres. Crime rates have fallen by 86%, and the drug dealers and for-sale signs are gone. Larry Otis, the white Republican mayor of Tupelo, understandably brags about this grass-roots accomplishment as the proudest success of the city during his tenure.

At the heart of this change is the community center that houses a booming Boys and Girls Club, created to give the kids of Haven Acres a positive alternative to gang life.

Ron Green, who grew up in Haven Acres and now runs the Boys and Girls Clubs of northern Mississippi, says the mentors at the Haven Acres club served 260 kids each day this summer, saving them from drugs, crime and maybe even death as they learned self-esteem and civic virtue.

Youths whom he would not have trusted with the keys to his office six months ago now stay there late to clean up, proud of the community they are creating.

And then Green's face falls. More than half of the mentors at Haven Acres were supported by the AmeriCorps program, which offers young people a modest living allowance and a promise of help toward college expenses in return for a year of full-time community service. Cutbacks in AmeriCorps have forced him to fire all those mentors and slash his services to Haven Acres children.

Haven Acres is not alone. Federal politicking has forced AmeriCorps to renege on its commitments to community service programs across the country. In the three-state Mississippi Delta, the nation's poorest region, AmeriCorps' support for programs has been chopped by 90%. And thousands of other programs from coast to coast have been similarly cut. Like Green, the harried leaders of those programs have been forced to eliminate positions for volunteers -- nationally, 20,000 such AmeriCorps slots have been cut, nearly half the total planned for this year.

During the closing decades of the 20th century, as I wrote three years ago in "Bowling Alone," Americans became steadily less connected with one another and with collective life. We voted less, joined less, gave less, trusted less, invested less time in public affairs and disengaged from friends and neighbors and even from our own families. Our "we" steadily shriveled.

In this context, the attacks of 9/11 represented not just a national tragedy but also an extraordinary opportunity for civic renewal. After these decades of disengagement from our communities, Americans surprised themselves in their post-9/11 solidarity.

Many people recognized that this was a "teachable moment." If we caught that moment to build the foundation for a new culture of service and civic engagement, we could create a new "greatest generation." President Bush articulated this national yearning in his 2002 State of the Union address. The president proposed a substantial expansion of the federal government's support for national and community service through AmeriCorps.

The program was already a proven success at helping young people from all walks of life -- not just the wealthy who can afford full-time volunteering -- invest a year of their lives in community service. Now it would be expanded to 75,000 posts a year.

Bush's call to action caught the imagination of the nation's youth. Applications to AmeriCorps jumped, and organizations in thousands of communities worked to absorb and direct these new energies. But now Washington is betraying the hopes of these idealistic youngsters.

Despite support for AmeriCorps from 44 governors, 79 senators, 250 corporate leaders and the vast majority of the American public, right-wing ideologues in the House have blocked the funding needed to keep the program even close to the growth path that the president laid out nearly two years ago. The House and Senate appropriation committees recently proposed allocating $340 million to $345 million to AmeriCorps for next year, but this initiative does nothing to forestall the draconian cuts facing its programs this year.

The president has so far remained above the fray, seemingly reluctant to commit himself to defending his own promise. Discussing his call to service two days after the 2002 State of the Union address, Bush told volunteers in Daytona Beach: "I'm one of these accountability guys. I understand sometimes in political process all you hear are words. I like to back them up with action. It's one thing to lay it out; it's another thing to follow up. I'm a follow-up guy."

Mr. President, now's the time for you personally to follow up.

The nation's young people responded enthusiastically to your leadership two years ago, and now's the time to make good on your commitments to them. Now's the time for you to persuade the House to act.

This is indeed a "teachable moment," and American youth -- in Haven Acres and across the country -- are listening. What civics lesson will you teach?

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