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A Call for Renewed Citizenship

GEORGE BUSH'S ethereal thousand points of light theory for aiding the needy gained some grounding in legislation introduced recently. It's a plan to revive civic responsibility, and it deserves serious consideration. The ``Citizenship and National Service Act of 1989,'' introduced by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma, would make national service a prerequisite for most young Americans who want federal aid for a college education, job training, or housing. Bringing the notion of civic responsibility into the equation of federal funding makes sense; it would reinforce the connection between civic duty and public reward.

As George Bush's Inaugural Address stressed, Americans need to pull together and renew their sense of civic responsibility.

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Under this plan, 19 to 26 year olds would form a Citizens Corps working one or two years on such projects as providing day care, combatting illiteracy, or caring for the elderly and homeless.

Volunteers would be paid a modest wage of about $100 a week and receive a $10,000 voucher for each year of civilian service or $12,000 for each year of military service. These vouchers could then be applied to a college education, job or vocational training, or used as a down payment on a new home.

Federal college loans and grants would be phased out in favor of federal benefits to be earned through national service. In other words, making a difference in someone else's life would make a difference in the young volunteers' own lives.

Young people are a largely untapped resource for the creativity and energy needed to solve pressing social problems. It's a question of providing the opportunity and leadership. Youth service programs at the grass-roots level have shown that America's youth are enthusiastic about making a difference in their communities.

Implementing legislation of this sort is no easy task and guaranteeing equity is difficult; people with more money would have less incentive to participate. Yet the notion of injecting a dose of citizen obligation into federal funding deserves attention.

Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (D) is working on companion legislation based on part-time community service. In exchange for weekend and summer service, volunteers would receive a $3,000 annual voucher. This would provide an option to those who cannot devote a full year or two to the program.

The key is making the program a valued experience for the participants - even for those who now equate success in life with financial gain.

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Those who benefit from society's assistance should make a reciprocal contribution. If this becomes the norm, President Bush's thousand points of light could become hundreds of thousands of young people lighting the way to a more hopeful future for themselves and their country.

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