The news that AmeriCorps might lose nearly half its volunteers has taken many Americans by surprise.
After all, isn't this the program full of fresh-faced young people eager to serve their country that President Bush has often touted, recently suggesting it be expanded to 75,000 volunteers? What happened to the "USA Freedom Corps" of his 2002 State of the Union address?
The AmeriCorps situation is actually more complicated than it seemed at first: The program's budget gap was a result of its own past funding decisions, not an outright cut. And it's still possible that Congress will restore at least some of that gap with emergency funding.
But as the drama has played out in recent weeks - eliciting a slew of editorials and commentary - it's sparked a heated conversation about the value of service, the nature of volunteering, and whether either belongs as part of a national program.
"At a time when people are saying there's a problem in society of civic disengagement, to invest a modest amount of money in shoring up that civic center seems to me the sensible thing to do," says E.J. Dionne, coeditor of "United We Serve," recently published by the Brookings Institution.
Judging from the vociferous support in recent op-eds and full-page ads, America's mayors, governors, and business leaders agree. But many lawmakers have disliked AmeriCorps from the start, viewing it as the epitome of Clinton-style bureaucracy - a program that looked good for the cameras but didn't amount to much, and paid people to do what they should do for free.
In the tiny Head Start classrooms in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, the question is less abstract. It's about whether, next year, a college student like Tiaira Winn will spend hours of one-on-one time each week with preschoolers like Angela.
"This is the best job I've ever had," says Ms. Winn firmly, as she reviews the different types of dinosaurs with three rapt preschoolers. Winn is one of 43 Tufts University students who last year worked through AmeriCorps for Jumpstart, a national nonprofit that pairs Head Start preschoolers with mentors. Angela, the girl Winn met each week, was a shy girl who spoke more Cantonese than English.
"When I first started working with her, she didn't say much in group circles," Winn says, as a young girl pokes her with a stegosaurus. "But near the end, she got really excited.... She liked the 'Big Green Monster' book. She loved to count."
The experience was so positive that Winn decided to keep working through the summer, helping with groups of kids rather than one on one.
AmeriCorps is filled with stories of volunteers like Winn, who teach literacy, build low-income housing, mentor at-risk teens, and clean up parks. But critics say it's not the idea of service they have a problem with; it's the idea of a government program paying for the work.
"Over 90 million Americans volunteer every year with no prodding from Uncle Sam," says James Bovard, author of "Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years." "Politicians like pork barrels, but that doesn't mean [AmeriCorps] is good policy."
The actual details of the current crisis are complex. Due in part to overzealous enrolling of volunteers last year, and a failure to put money in the trust fund that awards education grants, the agency suddenly found itself $200 million short if it wanted to keep the same numbers of volunteers - about 67,000 last year.
AmeriCorps volunteers work for thousands of nonprofits, from tiny local groups to national organizations like City Year, Jumpstart, and Teach for America - all of which now face huge cuts. Jumpstart, for instance, whose 1,200 AmeriCorps volunteers served 4,500 low-income preschoolers last year, discovered that 78 percent of its programs would be unfunded.
If the House approves the extra $100 million the Senate has already OK'd, many of those cuts won't happen. But the House support is far from certain, and AmeriCorps's supporters are upset there's even a chance the funding won't come through. Mr. Bush, an outspoken AmeriCorps admirer, has remained so silent.
"He's called for the creation of 75,000 slots, and this fight is where the rubber meets the road," says Mr. Dionne. "Whether this comes through or not is a test of his commitment."
Bush's past support, Dionne notes, did help depoliticize the program for some Republicans. "In principle, conservatives should very much like AmeriCorps," he says. It "strengthens those very civil-society institutions that conservatives no less than liberals or moderates admire.... But after the healthcare plan, this is the thing people most associate with Clinton."
That some conservatives have begun to look at the program more fondly infuriates critics like Mr. Bovard. "Bush often has these AmeriCorps members show up on the tarmac when he flies in. That's exactly what Clinton did, and the conservatives were outraged then," he says. "Now, a lot of them seem to have lost their voice on this issue."
At least a few are still outraged, both at the sloppy accounting that got the agency into its current crisis and at its basic premise - of the government paying people to serve.
Dick Armey, former House majority leader, called it "well-paid social activism" in a recent USA Today op-ed piece. It's a program, he wrote, "rooted in the un-American idea that the people of this country have to be enticed into community service with monetary incentive."
That suggestion, in particular, rankles many AmeriCorps supporters. Each full-time volunteer is paid very little - an education award of $4,725 and an annual living allowance of about $9,300. The money, they say, is hardly why people join the program. But without it, only the very wealthy could afford to serve.
Melissa Russell, who served for two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Lake Tahoe, says that having to live on poverty-level wages helped open her eyes to what the people she was working with faced every day. "It put you on a more equal playing field," she says. "You'd be working with kids who are crying because they have a toothache, and you'd want to cry too, because your teeth hurt but you don't have dental insurance."
As Jumpstart's site manager for Tufts University, Ms. Russell now helps new AmeriCorps members. The education award - $1,000 for the part-time workers from Tufts - is important to them, she acknowledges, but choosing to do AmeriCorps as their work-study is "a way they can give back."
Now, Russell is worried not just about the future of the program she loves, but about whether she'll have a job next year. "Everyone," she says, "is in limbo."