The Reagan era -- goodbye to VISTA?

One of the clearest legacies of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" -- the VISTA program -- seems headed for certain radical change, if not outright demise, in the dawning Reagan era.

"Volunteers in Service to America," the domestic version of the Peace Corps, for 15 years has sent thousands of helpers to troubled places, ranging from Appalachia to the South Bronx. Their legislative mandate has been to "assist in the solution of poverty and poverty-related problems."

Sociologists and politicians argue over the level of poverty in the United States since the mid-1960s, but VISTAs (as the individual volunteers are called) can point to solid successes in many areas.

The Reagan administration, however, wants to rapidly cut federal funding for the program and phase it out entirely in 1983, according to internal administration documents. It proposes a $1.7 million recision in VISTA's $34 million 1981 budget, a 40 percent cut next year, and phase-out funding in 1983 to a level of one-third the current appropriation.

While Mr. Reagan actively encourages voluntarism, the President objects to the ideological image VISTA has evolved over the years: one of social activism that bucks the establishment and promotes changes often perceived as liberal.

Indeed, early VISTA volunteers tended to be young, white, middle-class, college-educated idealists -- the kind of Berkeley types who booed Reagan when he was governor of California.

"VISTAs were the radical troops organizing the poor against the establishment ," concedes Pablo Eisenberg, president of Friends of VISTA, a group recently organized to save the agency. "Clearly that image remains."

The reality, however, is considerably different these days. Some 60 percent of VISTA volunteers are recruited from the neighborhoods in which they serve, 30 percent are low-income, 40 percent are minorities, and 15 percent are elderly. They still work for subsistence wages. Each volunteer costs the federal government $5,700 a year. Studies have shown that each volunteer generates $24, 000 worth of private funds, resources, and services for needy local groups.

VISTA volunteers have helped spotlight the "black lung" problem in Eastern coal mines, developed pretrial release programs, set up credit unions and buying cooperatives, organized energy insulation programs, promoted affirmative action in the hiring of minorities, brought health care facilities to the poor, pushed for tenants' rights, and helped rehabilitate abandoned housing. Three-quarters of all VISTA projects are continued by local groups once the agency volunteer leaves.

Internal planning documents show that the Reagan administration wants to shift federally supported voluntarism toward traditional groups and mainline individuals, away from those beyond the establishment fringe. Planning memos talk of seeking volunteers -- professionals and retirees, Rotarians, Jaycees, Lion's Clubs, and the like -- "who understand how adult economic and family life work best: mature and successful citizens . . . volunteers who are practical, not visionary, and not interested in experimenting with social, political, or technological theories."

The emphasis here also seems to be away from poverty and toward problems affecting all classes and economic strata: drug abuse, young runaways, nonmarital pregnancy, and criminality. Programs for the elderly and enlisting elderly volunteers -- one of Nancy Reagan's prime concerns -- probably will be expanded, while those directed specifically toward the poor are cut back.

White House domestic adviser Martin Anderson says poverty has been "virtually eliminated . . . in the United States." Many disagree sharply. The Bureau of the Census put the number of poor Americans at 25.2 million in 1979, compared with 24.1 million 10 years earlier.

The Republican-dominated Senate recently held cursory hearings on the agency to which no "friendly" witnesses were called. The House next week will hear more balanced testimony, but supporters there are not optimistic that VISTA can be restored to anything resembling its former self.

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