Renewing America's Service Mentality

Advocate praises Clinton, private sector on family issues

SPEAKING with the terse certitude of a lifelong crusader for social justice, Marian Wright Edelman delivered the keynote address at the City Year graduation ceremony in Boston recently.

Mrs. Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, a privately supported advocacy group based in Washington, has for two decades been a prime mover behind legislative initiatives to benefit children and families.

Edelman is a longtime booster of grass-roots efforts like City Year, a six-year-old Boston service program. Each year, the organization selects a racially and economically diverse group of 300 young people, who each receive a small stipend in return for one year of intense community service.

They rebuild dilapidated communities, complete their own high school educations if needed, and tutor and mentor area schoolchildren.

In her speech, Edelman warned of a ``war against our children'' waged by poverty, violence, drugs, and the breakdown of communities and families.

She challenged the graduates to be honorable and vigilant, to uphold child-rearing as an invaluable public service, and to be unrelenting in their commitment to service.

``We are not all equally guilty,'' she told the audience of 3,000, ``but we are all equally responsible.''

Edelman spoke to the Monitor shortly before her address. Some excerpts:

Do you feel there is a renewed commitment to volunteerism in America?

I think there's a renewed commitment in America to the service ethic. I think City Year has played a role in developing that; I think [President Clinton] is very much committed to that. I think that more and more Americans realize that we face an extraordinary crisis, and that we're all going to have to find a way of reaching out to solve that crisis if we're going to have a future that's worth having.

So I think there is a greater spirit of volunteerism, but it needs to be encouraged.

City Year started out as a privately funded endeavor, and its success prompted public support. Do you believe that programs that help communities and families have to start in the private sector?

I believe in private advocacy, because it can be more creative, it can be more risk-taking, it can respond to need in a more flexible and quick manner.... I happen to belong to an organization that has never taken a government dime, so I do believe in independence.

How has the Clinton administration performed on child and family issues?

They've done a lot so far. We have a children's initiative that was included as part of the Budget Reconciliation Act last year that put in $2 billion to combat childhood hunger; $600 million in the childhood immunization plan to make sure that every child from an uninsured family is covered by immunization; the largest anti-poverty program that we've had in two decades, with the $21 billion expansion of the earned income tax credit; and a $1 billion family preservation program to prevent child abuse and neglect.

The president is also committed to full funding of Head Start, though they're having a heck of a hard time because of the budget rules that are still stacked against the needs of the poor, in getting the Congress to allocate what he asked.

But nevertheless, we have a new Head Start reauthorization bill that allows that program to come into the 21st century and to improve its quality standards.

National health insurance is obviously very important, although I'm concerned about the welfare reform program at the moment. What is missing is a serious debate about jobs in this country, and all of us have got to push to make sure that that happens. But we have come a very long way.

But while I think we've got good leadership, unless we break the rules of the budget game we're not going to be able to deal with the crisis of our children's families and that's the next struggle.

* Edelman's 1992 book, `The Measure of Our Success' (Beacon Press, 128 pp.) was reprinted last month.

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