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Americans can help themselves -- and each other

Out in the middle of the ocean on the Queen Elizabeth II the problems of needy Americans must have seemed remote. But when passenger Bill Verity got a Sunday phone call to help solve them from the President of the United States, he did what any good American would do -- he volunteered. So on Monday the President could announce Mr. Verity, chairman of the board of Armco Inc., as head of a new task force encouraging private voluntary efforts to make up for government cutbacks in meeting public needs.

Not another task force,m some may say. For years individuals and institutions , including Mr. Verity and his company, have been demonstrating ways that voluntarism can work. Isn't it time for more action rather than more study? Yes, the new vacuum in government support warrants the "fresh look at the way we provide social services" called for by Mr. Reagan. And the task force could go beyond providing a symbolic spur to those potential volunteers still lagging in the private sector; it could find means to identify needs and innovative combinations of public and private efforts to meet them.

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There is much to build on. Some estimates: 37 million American volunteers whose salary, if they were paid, would be $34 billion; at least a million volunteer organizations; some 330 major corporations and 175 labor groups with programs to stimulate employee participation in volunteer work. At the same time, another form of "volunterism" is on the rise: people volunteering to help themselves -- raising food, repairing houses, conserving energy -- to the tune of $60 bi llion in 1980. Taken together with traditional voluntary services, this adds up to $120 billion to $160 billion, or 4 to 6 percent to the gross national product.

This may be much less than the cost of government services -- and Mr. Reagan lightly noted that he did not intend for the Junior League to replace the Department of Health and Human Services. But the point is not only the monetary value but the quality and efficiency of services.

Here Mr. Verity was already quick off the mark with a Chamber of Commerce study he helped to initiate in Armco's headquarters town, Middletown, Ohio. It looked at what services government was funding and whether they could be handled as well or better by other means. It came up with the ideas not only for job training and education, for example, but for making airport improvements with local rather than federal funds -- thus anticipating the kind of user fees now being considered by the Reagan administration.

Many companies could be mentioned, with their programs for giving released time to employees who volunteer, lending executives to volunteer groups, preparing employees for volunteer participation in retirement. But to take only the firm of the President's new man:

Armco has been supporting the national Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to get more Hispanics into the mainstream; a program to identify and assist minority students, beginning in elementary school, toward careers in business and engineering; a factory where the handicapped make devices to be used by other handicapped persons. The company's "Time and Talent Tithing" program provides contributions to volunteer organizations to which employees lend their time. It even supported an employee's Democratic political career, though the boss is a Republican.

All this echoes Mr. Verity's campaign, as chairman of the national Chamber of Commerce last year, to move the private sector toward more responsibility in meeting the needs of society. The response of this sector now can help to prove what Mr. Reagan said in announcing his task force: that the size of the federal budget "is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern."

Mr. Reagan's personal budget was criticized when tax returns on six-figure incomes showed less than 1 percent for charity in 1979 and little more in 1980. But this is evidently not an appropriate barometer of his social conscience or chartiable concern -- and will not be, assuming he pushes forward on voluntarism with the dedication and effectiveness he has bestowed on other programs.

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