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Pork to the People

Clinton’s national-service program may actually be helping the disfranchised. Just don’t tell Congress.

The Capitol, Bill Clinton, Summer of Safety

USA, Washington DC, Capitol building at dusk

Dennis Flaherty/Getty

If there was a single moment that suggested the Dorchester, Mass., Summer of Safety program might be a tad unusual, it probably occurred at the police station in the second week of the program. That’s where 14 young Dorchester “participants,” as the enrollees in the Clinton administration’s national-service program are called, introduced themselves to the local five-0, whom they intended to help start and staff anti-crime projects.

The problem surfaced when two introductions proved unnecessary. “There were some kids in the room whom the police had had experience with,” says Watarn, a participant who attended the meeting. “They said, “These are some of the kids we’ve been trying to put in jail!'”

The summer program was a pilot involving 90 projects in 70 cities, with some 7,000 mostly young people participating in community work targeted at enhancing public safety. Projects ranged from providing escorts for senior citizens to installing locks on doors in high-crime neighborhoods.

The Dorchester program, which was administered by Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses, a nonprofit community group in this poor section of Boston, was the kind of thing that gives bureaucrats apoplexy and politicians something else to rail against. More than a couple of the 45 participants were previously employed dealing narcotics. Two were former gang members; three others were plucked from the chilled bosom of what a supervisor describes as an emerging gang. While in the program, two participants nearly had a shootout to settle a disagreement before program director Ron Homer Jr. and supervisor Wilbur Brown intervened. Three participants were mothers, and another was expecting. Three had lived in shelters. Though some were college students or even graduates, nearly 20 were described, reluctantly, by Homer as “at risk.”

Are these the fresh-faced youth imbued with the contagious spirit of community service that our tax dollars were meant to support? Even Homer expresses doubt. “My feeling is that this is a cutting-edge program,” he says. “I don’t think people are ready for that.” But Homer, the principal of a special middle school for hard cases, says he has learned from the summer program’s mistakes. If he had it to do over again, he would change the personnel mix — though not the way you might expect. “I think I would take no more than five [with] college backgrounds,” he says. The Dorchester program, which was dedicated to pulling troubled kids from the brink, illuminated the central paradox of the administration’s national-service program. Homer says he wanted to “take a lot of kids who were on the fence and over and try to bring them back.” But saving kids is precisely what national service is not supposed to be about. It was sold to Congress as a feel-good summer movie, not a ghetto melodrama. In none of the congressionally authorized scripts do participants even consider having shootouts. Those kinds of kids — gang members, dealers, marginals — are already generously provided for in federal appropriations for new prison construction.

The Dorchester supervisors were unabashed about their focus on putting kids first. Homer, who is only 27 but has the hoary eyes of one who has seen too much, sometimes worked 70- or 80-hour weeks keeping his kids from exploding. “If we didn’t give these kids an opportunity, they wouldn’t get an opportunity,” says Brown. A former gang member, Brown, 38, is an ex-con with a master’s degree and enough energy, will-power and charisma to change lives. At 6 feet 1 inch and 240 pounds, mostly muscle, he is the undisputed center of gravity when he walks into a room. Like Homer, he was a round-the-clock resource, working a second job at night as a youth counselor at the Boston courts.

The two men’s approach is tempered by realism. One idea common to Summer of Safety programs was having teams establish “safe houses” in high-crime neighborhoods. But how many homeowners are eager to accept into their homes, on a moment’s notice, say, a strange black teen-age boy wearing gang colors who is fleeing a gunfight? Similarly, the Dorchester group dismissed the ideas of performing “gang intervention” and establishing “crime watches.”

“Those words make people nervous,” says Homer. Instead, the teams conducted “youth intervention,” counseling young children, and attempted to raise “community awareness” among shopkeepers and residents about ways to avoid becoming a crime statistic. For example, a team cleared stock from a merchant’s window, allowing him to see who was approaching the store and allowing passersby to see what was happening inside.

As much as possible, the Dorchester program relied on the kids to supply their own remedies to urban blight. Javier, who used to tag walls with the moniker Munchie, painted murals with his team and now hopes to go to art school. Another team worked at a senior citizens’ center, serving meals and attending to other needs. Several participants worked out of the Log School, a local settlement house that provides everything from food for the hungry to programs for kids in trouble, two of which are run by Homer and Brown.

Until recently, the notion of national service knew no natural predators. The service ideal was so vast and ill-defined that it contained, with room to spare, George Bush’s thousand points of light within its supple borders.

The Clinton administration put money where Bush’s mouth used to be. In September 1993, Congress passed the Clinton-backed legislation establishing the Corporation for National and Community Service, approving $300 million for the program in 1994. National service is scheduled to expand dramatically in the next two years, reaching a three-year peak of $1.5 billion and 100,000 participants. Those participating in AmeriCorps, as the main national-service initiative is known, will receive the minimum wage, health-care insurance and a $4,725 grant for educational or vocational expenses at the end of one year of service. Summer participants get a $1,000 grant at the end of the season.

“It builds on an American tradition,” says Eli Segal, the Boston businessman whom Clinton appointed CEO of the corporation. “America has been more community driven than its European antecedents. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the GI Bill, the Peace Corps, VISTA and, now, AmeriCorps are all from the same tradition.”

When Clinton signed the national-service bill on Sept. 21, 1993, he used the same pen that John F. Kennedy had used in 1961 to sign the executive order that established the Peace Corps. But there is no modern precedent for AmeriCorps. At its peak, the Peace Corps fielded 16,000 Americans across the globe; it has averaged about 4,300. AmeriCorps is slated to introduce 20,000 young people into the nation’s neighborhoods in its first year alone and five times that by the end of 1996.

The program works like this: One-third of the grants are distributed directly by the corporation to national programs run by such established organizations as the YMCA. One-third are awarded to states on the basis of a population formula, with the commission approving state grant awards. The remaining third are awarded to local groups, which apply to the state commissions. The states pass the best applications on to the corporation, which judges the viability of the projects. “We expect you to be able to say why your community is going to be better next year than this year,” Segal says.

The corporation, however, cannot be the sole source of funding. “The local community must come up with 15 percent of the minimum wage for workers plus at least 25 percent of the program costs,” Segal says. “For instance, if you want to hire a Head Start teacher, that’s $16,000 a year. We’ll give you 85 percent of the minimum wage, which is close to $7,000. Now you only have to raise about $9,000. That’s how we’re leveraging.”

The Summer of Safety, the summer pilot program begun in June, evolved partly from a desire to lay the ground work for the fall and partly from a desire to win congressional favor. Anti-crime initiatives are wildly popular with politicians. If AmeriCorps could claim to have had an impact in deterring crime, it would make Segal’s testimony at budget hearings infinitely more pleasant.

The corporation’s promoters have cast it as a lean, efficient organization dedicated to watering the grass roots from which national service’s energy and accomplishments are expected to grow. “Nobody wanted a federal bureaucracy,” says corporation spokeswoman Diana Aldridge, whose job itself is a product of the new national-service bureaucracy.

Segal, too, seems to be shadowboxing the image of a bloated federal behemoth. “We try not to think of ourselves as grant makers,” he says. “Our legislation specifically requires that we will not have a federal sugar daddy in national service.”

Despite such claims of frugality, there is an undercurrent of suspicion about the program in Congress. In Senate debate about the bill in August 1993, Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey expressed his fear that “service programs will come into being to tap into a new federal pot of money rather than being cultivated from the community.” Yet without money for the minimum-wage salaries the participants receive, the whole program would quickly devolve into Bush’s twinkles in the dark. When I asked a Baltimore participant why he had signed on, his answer was brutally concise: “Money.”

“A jobs program is not what this is about,” says Trish Thomson, assistant director for evaluation at the Office of National Service Programs. People at the corporation avoid even using the word job. “We view this primarily as a service program with a financial-aid component to it,” Segal says.

Deficit politics in Congress, where brave champions of the American taxpayer compete to denounce wasteful spending on the poor, have forced the corporation to play down the chief virtue of AmeriCorps, which is its ability to recruit poor youths into the work force, giving them a chance to acquire discipline and pride in labor and a long but not impossible shot at the mainstream of American economic life. To camouflage the fact that AmeriCorps, for thousands of participants, is a jobs program, the corporation emphasizes tangible results. How many children will be immunized? How many anti-crime block associations will be established? “We want to be very product driven rather than process driven,” says Segal. The corporation’s motto is a hardheaded “Getting things done.”

The problem is that while a few programs run by particularly inspired leaders — Homers and Browns are rare — will accomplish a lot, little of it may be discernible to federal bean counters or congressional critics. How do you demonstrate the impact of having fewer dealers and gang members hanging out on Dorchester streets? What if one or two or more of them ultimately manage the transition to full-time employment and a straight life? Is that less valuable than establishing a neighborhood crime watch? It is certainly less measurable.

Meanwhile, other programs will achieve little at all. The worst of them will be held up as examples of fraud and waste and a reason to gut the whole program, just as the exposure of the shabbiest Comprehensive Employment and Training Act programs led to CETA’s abolishment in the early 1980s, obliterating the good along with the plentiful bad.

The founder of a direct-marketing company and the former publisher of Games magazine, Segal is steeped in the popular notion of making government perform more like business. He speaks of the process of selecting grantees in terms of the need to “pick and choose wisely, as a good investment banker would.”

But investment bankers don’t invest in high-school dropouts or in neighborhoods like Dorchester or East Baltimore. AmeriCorps, however, must.

One of the many ulterior benefits intended to flow from national service is the occasion for people of different races and classes to work together and build bridges. Nonetheless, of the 34 participants in a Baltimore program run by Civic Works, a local community-service group, only two were white. None was Asian or Hispanic. “It probably represents the pool we draw from,” says administrator Kate Rutherford. Of the more than 100 applications the program received for this summer’s positions, only four came from whites.

The Dorchester program was hardly better integrated. But one of its most creative teams comprised Watarn, a Japanese-American graduate of Yale; Aleke, a Dartmouth student who is half Italian-American and half black South African; and two former gang members from the neighborhood: Sam, who’s Hispanic, and Boots, who’s black. In the first week of the program, a participant told Aleke, who has brown skin and an Andover and Dartmouth vocabulary, “Your voice and how you look don’t match.”

“I thought the mix could turn into something volatile,” says Homer. But the risk eventually paid off. When the anxious police balked at working with Sam and Boots, the team members decided to stick together rather than split into units — one acceptable to the police, one not.

The team developed a curriculum, instigated by Sam and Boots, for teaching children at a church day camp about the criminal-justice system, about personal safety and about the perils of drugs and alcohol!. Aleke and Watarn helped prepare and structure the course, and Sam and Boots did most of the teaching, delivering their message with a level of credibility no Ivy League graduate is likely to match in a neighborhood like Dorchester. “They are eloquent — I’m talking eloquent,” says Aleke.

The information being exchanged within the Dorchester group was sometimes fundamental and profound: how to conduct an orderly meeting; the importance of organization and careful preparation; the value — and attainability — of education. Many participants were ambitious, highly motivated individuals who would thrive without the program. For others, it was a lifeline to the functional side of the world, a chance to learn alien behavior, the kind that society rewards. “I’ve learned a lot of things,” says one young woman. “Self-control. How to act. How to be friendly.”

If “getting things gone” were easy, the nation’s social bonds would not have the feel of shattered glass. “Getting things done,” as a day spent with an AmeriCorps team in Baltimore shows, can be very, very difficult.

Todd Moore, the team’s 32-year-old supervisor, has been on the job for five days. A former police officer, he works nights in a home for abused adolescents, where his physical strength is regularly matched by adrenalin-pumped teens for whom violence is often a first resort. A soft-spoken gentleman who says a silent grace even before a fast-food lunch, Moore wears a crocheted crucifix around his powerful neck.

Moore’s team consists of three women and seven men, all of whom, like Moore, are black. They come from homes ranging from poor to middle income. Elton has two children and a second job as a handyman. Raynell has another year of high school and a full scholarship to any college in Maryland. All of them have enough gumption to make it to City Hall for calisthenics each weekday at 7:45 a.m.

By 8:15 one hot July morning, we have piled into a cranberry-colored Ford Club Wagon with a cracked windshield, one of three vans the program uses, and are on the road. Unfortunately, the team has nothing to do but measure a window frame before 10 a.m., when the hardware store opens. Though the team has distributed fliers advertising free services to the elderly — window replacements, lock installations — there are few customers. A free lock on the door? Not surprisingly, many residents suspect a scam.

We get to the first real job of the day, on a drug-infested East Baltimore street, at 10:40 a.m. Six of the crew stay here, where they are scheduled to install a lock on an elderly woman’s front door. But first they must find the screwdriver, which appears to have been mislaid. Moore takes the van and returns with two other screwdrivers. Later, the missing tool is found in a trash bag in the back of the van. While Elton and Larry take charge of the lock brigade, Moore takes the remainder of the crew and the van to another location, where they will install the window.

Even without the spectacle of six people trying to put a lock on a single door, the street is an endless source of commotion. Middle-aged black men sit on their stoops, avid spectators of the local sport, in which the narcotics squad takes on the local drug dealers. They follow the action with the same appreciation for the game’s subtleties that veteran Orioles fans bring to Camden Yards.

Nicole drills the first hole in the door. Larry, who lives only a few blocks away, looks down at Carl, who is watching the street game from the stoop. “You wanna do something?” Larry asks. Carl says no, there are already too many people working on the damn lock. Under the circumstances, this doesn’t seem like a bad attitude. It sounds more like common sense.

Meanwhile, Moore and his group have returned from installing the window. It snapped right into place, a five-minute job. The lock, of course, is more complicated. Though they are diligent about their work, the kids haven’t had enough experience to do the job quickly. It is 12:15 before tools and crew are packed in the van, which heads for the food court at a local mall for lunch. In a little more than four hours, 10 corps members and a supervisor have measured one window, installed another and put one lock on a door. Though they are willing hands, there simply isn’t enough work. After lunch, the workload gets lighter.

Community projects in poor neighborhoods don’t often lend themselves to instant miracles. “It’s something we’re struggling with now,” says Civic Works’ Kate Rutherford. “Some of the [East Baltimore residents] were really suspicious over the phone. They’re afraid to let people in.”

In Philadelphia last summer, an immunization program staffed by nurses who were training at area colleges also had trouble getting off the ground. “They set up shop, and nobody came,” says Marilyn Smith, head of the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Service and director of Maryland’s 1993 Summer of Service. “It took a couple weeks to get the word out and get people feeling comfortable enough to bring their kids in. By the end of the summer, they were inoculating the people as fast as they could do it.”

Segal is justifiably proud of a pilot program begun last year in Texas in which 88 corps members immunized 105,000 children in six communities. It was such a hit that Texas governor Ann Richards decided to continue funding the program out of the state budget. This is the kind of “demonstrable” impact AmeriCorps is hoping to produce.

To judge AmeriCorps’ many programs by such a cost-benefit analysis, however, is surely to doom them. Many will not meet the standard. “To think you’re going to see demonstrable change is highly improbable,” says Benjamin Barber, director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, at Rutgers University. “For society to expect that 100,000 kids, one by one, are going to solve society-created problems is crazy.” The value of the national-service program, Barber maintains, lies in its ability to transform those who participate into engaged citizens who sustain a sense of civic commitment and responsibility for the rest of their lives. In other words, what happened in Dorchester is what it should be all about.

But don’t tell Congress. Even before the Sept. 12 launch of AmeriCorps’ new year-round programs, the corporation was already under attack for squandering taxpayers’ money. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa fired a broadside in mid-July, claiming the “laudable goals” of community service and reinventing government were being “undermined by the establishment and funding of a large and costly bureaucracy.”

“You know, every bit of the billions of dollars we spent on the military didn’t work,” says Joyce Strom, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “Every microscope we sent into space didn’t work.” Strom’s point is that government programs always contain an element of waste. That’s true, of course. But there’s no getting around the double standard. The margin of error for government programs that benefit military contractors and corporate shareholders and investment banks and research universities is in the billions of dollars. The margin of error for programs that benefit the kind of people who live in East Baltimore and Dorchester is zero.

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