A Call for Renewed Citizenship

GEORGE BUSH'S ethereal thousand points of light theory for aiding the needy gained some grounding in legislation introduced recently. It's a plan to revive civic responsibility, and it deserves serious consideration. The ``Citizenship and National Service Act of 1989,'' introduced by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma, would make national service a prerequisite for most young Americans who want federal aid for a college education, job training, or housing. Bringing the notion of civic responsibility into the equation of federal funding makes sense; it would reinforce the connection between civic duty and public reward.

As George Bush's Inaugural Address stressed, Americans need to pull together and renew their sense of civic responsibility.

Under this plan, 19 to 26 year olds would form a Citizens Corps working one or two years on such projects as providing day care, combatting illiteracy, or caring for the elderly and homeless.

Volunteers would be paid a modest wage of about $100 a week and receive a $10,000 voucher for each year of civilian service or $12,000 for each year of military service. These vouchers could then be applied to a college education, job or vocational training, or used as a down payment on a new home.

Federal college loans and grants would be phased out in favor of federal benefits to be earned through national service. In other words, making a difference in someone else's life would make a difference in the young volunteers' own lives.

Young people are a largely untapped resource for the creativity and energy needed to solve pressing social problems. It's a question of providing the opportunity and leadership. Youth service programs at the grass-roots level have shown that America's youth are enthusiastic about making a difference in their communities.

Implementing legislation of this sort is no easy task and guaranteeing equity is difficult; people with more money would have less incentive to participate. Yet the notion of injecting a dose of citizen obligation into federal funding deserves attention.

Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (D) is working on companion legislation based on part-time community service. In exchange for weekend and summer service, volunteers would receive a $3,000 annual voucher. This would provide an option to those who cannot devote a full year or two to the program.

The key is making the program a valued experience for the participants - even for those who now equate success in life with financial gain.

Those who benefit from society's assistance should make a reciprocal contribution. If this becomes the norm, President Bush's thousand points of light could become hundreds of thousands of young people lighting the way to a more hopeful future for themselves and their country.

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