Rebuilding Communities

Modest amounts of federal seed money for local projects could strengthen America's civic infrastructure, as CETA showed

AS the nation ponders how to rebuild decaying inner cities and generate employment during a recession, we would do well to consider a highly successful experiment undertaken a decade and a half ago. An innovative provision of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of 1973 made funds available to counties nationwide to support nonprofit organizations working to meet social needs unmet by either governments or private business.

The program drew forth a brimming flow of creative energy on behalf of communities by local people willing to work for very little if allowed to do what they felt was most needed. In our own rural neighborhood, the health clinic, day-care center, recycling center, several community schools, and a salmon-restoration project were catalyzed into existence by modest CETA grants. I waded twice through the obligatory forms and protracted negotiations before I won the CETA grants that put my local community-run

school on its feet. My wife worked on a CETA-supported project clearing brush to reduce the hazard of wildfires in the region. Most of these projects not only survive but have since become self-supporting.

The CETA experiment was a refreshing departure from the standard alienated relationship between government and citizens. Here the government acted not like a remote bureaucracy issuing directives from above but like a nonprofit foundation providing assistance to worthy initiatives bubbling up from below. Government policies have all too frequently neglected the nonprofit sector of local communities as resources for the community's renewal. They have never understood that communities can do a great deal t o heal themselves if given just that modest measure of timely assistance that helps them become self-sustaining.

CETA's remarkable experiment was terminated by the Reagan administration, faulted for being a "big government" program when in fact it decreased the state's role by returning resources and initiative to local communities. But the seed of an idea remains, and this may be its best opportunity to germinate anew. Many Americans are turning to their badly neglected communities and asking how they can help revive them.

Tapping into this latent energy, a program tailored to today's needs might work something like this: A special Fund for Innovative Community Service (FICS or FIX) would be established in the courthouse of every county nationwide that wished to participate in the voluntary program. In a competition open to all locally-based nonprofit organizations serving community needs, FIX grants would be awarded to a wide range of projects for neighborhood reconstruction and enhancement - community parks, gardens, and

schools; door-to-door recycling services; shelters for the homeless and battered; small-scale housing rehabs; environmental restoration projects. The creativity and variety of projects stimulated by FIX funds would likely astonish us all.

Unlike conventional government programs, under FIX the initiative, design, and implementation of the projects would be carried out by community organizations familiar with local needs. Funding decisions would be made by a community-based board, elected by county voters and serving on a voluntary basis. A small staff would evaluate proposals and monitor progress.

True to its spirit, FIX should start small and grow as it proves its worth. Even as little as a few hundred million dollars nationwide in the first year, a trivial sum by federal budget standards, would seed thousands of vital local projects. Individual grants should be modest, in the range of $5,000 to $50,000, calculated to catalyze pioneering efforts rather than to provide long-term maintenance for existing organizations. Priority would be given to those showing promise of eventually becoming self-sup porting.

FIX dovetails nicely with a promising proposal recently endorsed by Democratic nominee Bill Clinton to offer state-financed education to students who agree to do community service afterward. Schools, colleges, and vocational institutes nationwide could be invited to link up with a national computer network of FIX offices offering a complete list of FIX-funded projects and employment opportunities. Schools could use this information to place graduating students in community-service projects in the field a nd location of their choice.

The FIX idea addresses liberal concerns about meeting human needs while accommodating the conservative criticism that centralized social welfare often ends up disempowering people by treating them as wards of the state. Rewarding initiative and innovation at the local level, FIX strengthens the largely invisible but highly efficient sector of the economy that addresses an increasing variety of tasks unsuited to large government programs or profit-driven enterprises.

Repairing this country's deteriorating economy and disintegrating social order requires rebuilding our local communities, reweaving the web of shared benefits and responsibilities that bind us to one another. Returning even just a tiny fraction of the financial resources drawn from local communities by federal taxes and making it available for community self-renewal could spark a renaissance of creativity and accomplishment in this country. FIX will not cure all our ills, but it may fix some that can't b e repaired in any other way.

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