Globe Editorial

Preserve national service, even in a tight budget

March 29, 2011

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OF ALL THE cuts House Republicans have sought under the banner of trimming the national deficit, the decision to zero out the Corporation for National & Community Service is the most incongruous. The $1.1 billion agency, which is the largest source of federal money to support volunteerism, epitomizes the bipartisan commitment to national service once described by former President George H.W. Bush as “a thousand points of light.’’

Beyond that, the national service program has become an incubator for initiatives — in areas ranging from housing to urban education — promising a more entrepreneurial, participatory approach to addressing public needs. This kind of innovation should appeal to budget-conscious lawmakers, even if it involves some up-front expense.

The national service agency mobilizes more than 5 million Americans — mostly unpaid volunteers — who fan out into schools, food banks, senior developments, homeless shelters, and other areas in need of experienced hands. The most trusted names in American community service — AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, City Year, Teach for America, YouthBuild, and Habitat for Humanity — rely on its existence.

Some Republicans look askance at the modest stipends offered by some of the service programs. AmeriCorps members, for example, scrape by on about $12,000 in living expenses during their year of service. What Republicans ignore is that each AmeriCorps member is expected to recruit 30 or more unpaid volunteers. And that the commitment to public service lasts long after the stipend disappears.

During the economic downturn in 2009, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which expanded and reauthorized the agency. He knew that many volunteers would be needed to fill the gaps created by cuts in state and local budgets. But who or what will remain if the agency is eliminated?

The Republicans rightly insist on quality and accountability. So does the national service agency. Teach for America, for example, is placing some of America’s brightest college graduates at the head of the neediest classrooms for two-year teaching stints. In Massachusetts alone, other young AmeriCorps members provide intensive tutoring and mentoring to 170,000 children. At the other end of the age scale, Senior Corps members in Massachusetts provide the kind of daily help that allows more than 40,000 frail elderly to remain in their homes. In the middle, Generations Inc. provides AmeriCorps-like support for volunteers ages 55 and up who provide tutoring, counseling, and enrichment for school children in Boston and Revere.

There’s no big bureaucracy or overhead for budget cutters to attack at the Corporation for National & Community Service. These cost-efficient programs should be expanded and built upon, until every troubled neighborhood, public school, and senior center has a stable support network.

Much of the impetus for national service grew out of Massachusetts — from the late senators Paul Tsongas and Kennedy, to the inspiration of City Year, founded by two Harvard students. It would be a disastrous step backward to gut the national service corporation. Thankfully, many senior Republicans, including former President George W. Bush, have stepped forward to defend it as a means of leveraging Americans’ community spirit. Even in a time of deficits, when all acknowledge that some worthy programs will have to be cut, the agency looks completely out of place on the chopping block.