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A Social Program Ce Os Want To Save


Government: COMMUNITY SERVICE

A SOCIAL PROGRAM CEOs WANT TO SAVE

It's not like Erie Chapman to defend a federal do-gooder program. After all, he's a CEO, a loyal Republican, and a fund-raiser for House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio), leader of the GOP budget-cutting effort. Yet the head of Columbus-based U.S. Health Corp. says Kasich is wrong to target President Clinton's national service program, AmeriCorps, for extinction.

U.S. Health has pledged $150,000 over three years to City Year, a nonprofit that sends AmeriCorps members to work at community projects in Columbus and five other cities nationwide. Chapman argues that AmeriCorps will recoup more than its $376 million cost this year by giving youths skills to become productive adults. He has even protested the planned cuts at a Washington press conference and congressional hearing. "It's tragic to cut these programs," he says. "Why shoot a bunch of innocent kids just to get at the President?"

CALLS AND LETTERS. Chapman has plenty of company among execs lobbying their Republican pols to save Clinton's pet program. Since AmeriCorps' creation by Congress in 1993, corporations have ponied up cash, equipment, and employee volunteers to help 20,000 young adults aged 18 to 25 perform services that range from rehabbing low-income housing to cleaning up rivers. A list of donors reads like a who's who of Corporate America: BellSouth, Microsoft, NationsBank, Procter & Gamble, and American Express--to name a few.

It's no accident that execs find the project appealing. Unlike most bureaucratic social programs, AmeriCorps tries to operate like a business. It's run by a nonprofit company--the Corporation for National Service--rather than a federal agency. Moreover, the process of choosing the 350 service programs that are assigned to AmeriCorps participants is competitive. Thousands of local groups submit proposals--with goals and concrete ways to measure success--and state boards pick the winners.

Besides, business is already intimately involved in the program. By law, nongovernment sources--usually businesses --must pay at least 25% of operational costs and 15% of the $7,200 stipend each AmeriCorps member gets for a year of service. Participants also get a $4,725 education grant at the end of service. Says Eli J. Segal, the former exec who heads AmeriCorps: "This translates into the kind of business buy-in that other federal programs have not had."

MORE BANG. CEOs particularly like the way AmeriCorps' pool of full-time, community-service workers allows them to leverage their own charitable efforts. Timberland Co., for example, says AmeriCorps participation was key to its five-year pledge of $5 million in cash and equipment to City Year, whose youths nationwide are dressed in Timberland outfits. "As the program gets bigger, our investment goes further," explains Ken Freitas, vice-president for community enterprise.

To save AmeriCorps from the GOP budget scalpel, corporate chiefs ranging from Shell Oil's Philip J. Carroll to Anheuser-Busch's August A. Busch III have written letters to Capitol Hill lawmakers. Tenneco Gas's Steve Chesebro not only sent letters to his two Republican senators--Texans Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison--but lobbied other Houston CEOs to kick in money for the local AmeriCorps program. "We didn't say that we liked big government or that government should take care of this through handouts," he says. "We have seen that this is productive and proven."

Home Depot CEO Bernard Marcus has written to two dozen lawmakers, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represents a district in the company's home state of Georgia. One of Home Depot's favorite programs is Hands-On Atlanta, a clearinghouse for volunteers. The company had already given $10,000 a year to the group, but with AmeriCorps involvement, Home Depot has expanded its support by $125,000 over three years. Now, 65 AmeriCorps members are aides in three urban schools--a program not possible with the nonprofit group's part-time volunteers. Why is Home Depot so interested? "We need people to hire," says Suzanne Apple, director of community affairs. "This program will help build self-sufficiency, self-esteem, and the leaders of tomorrow."

One of those future leaders may be 27-year-old Paul P. Promadhat, a computer aide in a Harlem elementary school. As part of his AmeriCorps-backed training, he works at Project First, a program designed by IBM and the nonprofit Public Education Fund Network. Big Blue gives $100,000 in computers and cash and provides retirees to train aides. When his AmeriCorps stint ends in July, Promadhat hopes the school system will hire him full time as a computer troubleshooter. "This gave me an opportunity to do something I believe in," he says.

OUT FOR BLOOD? So far, such testimonials haven't moved Republicans, who seem bent on destroying the Clinton program. There may be more than money at stake: Killing AmeriCorps would yield under 1% of the more than $1 trillion in savings the GOP needs to balance the budget by 2002, but it would be a big slap at the President. Budget Chairman Kasich denies that the GOP attacks are aimed at Clinton. "It's a matter of policy, not politics," he says. "The AmeriCorps program is expensive, inefficient, and top-heavy with bureaucracy."

AmeriCorps' opponents argue that young people should volunteer for community service without getting stipends and that the program's per-member cost is an inefficient $30,000. "When we're cutting basic welfare to the poor, Medicare, and Head Start, you can't sustain the argument for funding AmeriCorps," says John P. Walters, president of the New Citizenship Project, a conservative policy group.

AmeriCorps officials say the program costs closer to $18,000 per member--about 33,000 youths are expected to take part next year at a federal cost of $575 million. And a new study by professors at the universities of Michigan and Iowa finds that each dollar spent on the program reaps $2.60 in reduced welfare costs, increased earnings, and other benefits. With returns like that, many CEOs aren't ready to throw in the towel. So this may yet be one do-gooder program the Republicans spare.

AMERICORPS' CORPORATE FRIENDS

Corporate America has been a big backer of programs using AmeriCorps members. Among the supporters:

GENERAL ELECTRIC Contributed $250,000 to 11 United Way chapters for projects, including literacy training and food pantries.

TENNECO GAS Has given $35,000, plus printing and accounting services, to Serve Houston Youth Corps, an AmeriCorps affiliate.

NIKE Promised $150,000 for programs in six cities to set up fitness-oriented projects, such as sports leagues and renovating playgrounds.

FANNIE MAE Gave $100,000 to three housing groups to train Ameri-Corps members to counsel low-income renters on homeownership.

DATA: AMERICORPSBy Susan B. Garland in Washington, with Mary Beth Regan


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