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Democrats Seek New Approach to Social Programs : Volunteer ‘Citizen Corps’ Proposed

Times Political Writer

Democratic lawmakers, seeking a new, centrist approach to social programs, Wednesday introduced a sweeping proposal for national service legislation intended to harness the latent energy of voluntarism to combat such problems as illiteracy, homelessness and crime.

Described by its sponsors as an updated version of the GI Bill of Rights, the legislation would create a “citizens corps” whose members could choose either civilian or military service. Volunteers would receive cash vouchers on completion of their service that could be used to help finance a college education, vocational or job training or for a down payment on a home.

The proposal, offered as the Democratic Party is struggling to rehabilitate itself after a series of presidential defeats, combines the goals of upward mobility and social justice with the patriotic notion of national service.

‘Major Thrust’

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“A major thrust in how we deliver social services in America,” Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, one of the bill’s principal sponsors, said of the measure at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Nunn said that he is pleased President Bush gave the idea of voluntarism a boost in his inaugural address in which the new President urged “a new engagement in the lives of others--a new activism.” Nunn and Democratic backers of the bill said that they hope to gain bipartisan support for the measure.

Nevertheless it was clear that the bill could have important political implications for the future of the Democratic Party. Two of its principal sponsors, Nunn and newly elected Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb, are members of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Nunn contended that the service proposal would not require a large federal bureaucracy to administer, as many existing government programs do, and that it would steer away from the notion of entitlements, another hallmark of many social programs.

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“This is not a guaranteed benefit,” Nunn said. “It’s a guaranteed opportunity.”

Under the plan, service in the citizen corps ultimately would become a prerequisite for federal aid for most students who now receive such support in the form of loans or grants based on economic need.

Local Management

As envisaged by its sponsors, the citizen corps would be managed on the local and state levels by councils made up of nonprofit organizations and other community groups, funded by grants by a public corporation for national service.

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Civilian volunteers could serve one to two years, getting a subsistence wage of $100 a week, working in education, health care, conservation or public safety. For each year in the corps, civilian volunteers would receive a $10,000 voucher.

Volunteers choosing military service would get $24,000 vouchers after two years of active duty, or $12,000 if they choose reserve status.

Advocates of the proposal assert that it would appeal more to middle class youth than many programs created by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s that benefited mainly lower income groups.

The Republican view of voluntarism generally has focused on the private sector or on much more limited government programs.

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Though the moving force for the national service proposal has been the relatively conservative Democratic Leadership Council, backing for the general idea has come from some liberal Democrats, such as Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. At the press conference Mikulski outlined her own version of national service, which would allow for part-time neighborhood community service, modeled after the National Guard.

‘Sense of Obligation’

“Every one seems to have a sense of entitlement and no sense of obligation,” Mikulski said.

“This is the one major social program that any Democrat has been able to propose,” said Joseph Duffey, a long-time liberal Democratic activist who is now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts and a proponent of the measure.

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But even the sponsors acknowledged that their proposal would require lengthy study and debate before it could be enacted.

One problem is opposition expected from students and others who would object to making national service a requirement for federal aid to college students.

Cost is another obstacle. Charles Moskos, University of Northwestern sociologist and one of the chief architects of the plan, estimated that the citizen corps eventually would require an annual budget of about $5 billion based on a civilian volunteer force of 500,000, though he contended that this expense would be partly offset by cutting back on programs for student aid and job training.


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