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March 29 Daily News editorial

AmeriCorps, the successful national and community service program launched in 1994 with 20,000 volunteers, is on a fast legislative track for a dramatic growth spurt. The Senate voted 79-19 last week to more than triple the program’s size over the next eight years, from its current 75,000 volunteers to 250,000. The House is expected to take up the legislation as early as Monday, meaning the bill could be on the president’s desk by the end of the week.

Co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the legislation appears to have strong support on both sides of the aisle. AmeriCorps members earned that bipartisan support, not the program’s early backers or paid lobbyists. Their work with local charities in communities around the nation won over conservatives who were initially critical of government involvement with volunteer organizations.

Democrats and Republicans, alike, have come to view this national service program as a wise, cost-effective investment in the nation’s future. Steven Waldman, writing for the Wall Street Journal, noted that AmeriCorps is “often a way to increase a charity’s ability to use unpaid volunteers — a key reason it’s won over hardcore conservatives like Hatch …” Waldman adds, “Based on past patterns, the 250,000 AmeriCorps members will help recruit or manage seven million unpaid volunteers.”

These AmeriCorps volunteers sign up for a year of public service. They receive modest stipends and money to put toward college expenses or training programs at accredited schools. There is no age limit; AmeriCorps also counts many seniors among its members. Their work in communities ranges from mentoring students in core subjects to dealing with substance abuse and domestic violence problems.

We’ve witnessed the worth of this program locally. The Cowlitz AmeriCorp Network has fielded teams of national service volunteers in the county since 2000. Here in Cowlitz County, they’ve built affordable housing, tutored children, organized after-school programs, worked with disabled adults and provided many other needed services.

AmeriCorps makes big contributions to this and other communities throughout the nation. It’s contributions are particularly important when the economy is down and government services are being cut back or eliminated, as they are today. But even in a booming economy, AmeriCorps is a good investment. It helps communities make improvements and provide services they otherwise could not afford. It helps many deserving young people get the education they otherwise might not be able to obtain.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., declared last week that the proposed AmeriCorps expansion “will pay dividends long beyond anything that we can imagine.” Considering the number of lives this investment could possibly change for the better, that may not be an exaggeration.

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