US congressman pushes national job corps to help youth. Local programs exist, but lots of teen-agers fall between the cracks

Faced with a burgeoning deficit and forced budget cuts, Congress is unlikely to welcome additional requests for costly social programs. But this has not stopped some congressmen from trying.

Alarmed at the high rate of joblessness among America's young, several members are again pushing for a national program to help provide teen-agers with jobs. Past efforts to create such a program on a national scale were unsuccessful.

Proposed by Leon Panetta (D) of California, the Voluntary National Youth Service Act would offer young people between the ages of 17 and 24 jobs in local nonprofit, social-service, or governmental organizations.

While they would not necessarily receive regular paychecks, those in the program would get help in financing education and job training in return for service.

With the help of federal funds, state and local governments would also provide the youths with stipends, housing, or other assistance while they work.

Mr. Panetta says there are about 41 programs like this across the country. Among them are New York City's Citizens Volunteer Corps, or CVC, and San Francisco's Conservation Corps.

In New York, young people must undergo rigorous screening and training before they are allowed to make the one-year service commitment, says LaRease Limerick, director of recruitment for New York City's school volunteer program. And being selected for the school tutoring program is considered a special honor for these kids, says Cathy Powell, of the New York City volunteer corps.

But because these programs exist on the state and local level, they are available to only a small fraction of the nation's youth, says Ms. Limerick.

According to the Department of Labor, 17 percent of today's youth is unemployed and actively looking for work. Youth, meanwhile, make up 17 percent of the total unemployed in the United States.

There has been a ``tremendous response among the kids'' in San Fransisco's program, Panetta says. And New York's CVC has been enthusiastically received by those involved, Ms. Limerick says.

A program like New York's, however, can include at best only a thousand teens, Limerick says. And the San Francisco Corps addresses only those youngsters between the ages of 18 and 23.

But concern about maintaining funding for existing programs is a major obstacle to this kind of legislation, says US Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.

Congressman Panetta agrees but says, ``If we really believe that children are our most important resource, we must be willing to give them some of our time and money.''

Melvin King, a civil rights leader and director of the Community Fellows program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working to develop a local version of the bill in Massachusetts, but hopes to see the program nationalized.

``If you examine the dropout rates, the incredible cost of education, and the lack of proper education in cities, '' Mr. King says, ``you can see that our young people are going to need some help.''

It would be especially important on the national level, King says, because it would give young people a choice as to how they want to serve their country. ``People shouldn't have to go into the military to get this,'' he says. ``The GI Bill allowed a lot of creativity and talent to go to college....''

By opening some areas of child-care, health-care, drug-education, drug-rehabilitation, or youth-development programs to young people, ``you are not only providing new jobs, you are meeting each community's particular needs as well,'' King says.

The bill will cost about $10 million for the first year, Panetta estimates.

``The maturity and commitment that this kind of service requires shows that the participants are people we want to take a risk on,'' he says.

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