AmeriCorps grants dwindle Supporters fear cuts in funding will endanger community services.

Posted: July 07, 2003

WASHINGTON — AmeriCorps, the national service program created by President Bill Clinton and praised by President Bush, this week will announce grants that will pay for 30,000 new members - fewer than half as many as last year.

That has many advocates wondering how a program that Bush had singled out for bigger budget requests could have fallen on such hard times.

It also has sparked a grassroots movement asking the President and Congress to authorize an extra $200 million - a modest sum by federal standards - to keep AmeriCorps at current levels.

The White House has not yet taken a position on whether to seek extra funds for AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps' champions include public-service groups, business leaders, mayors, governors and members of Congress.

They argue that unless AmeriCorps gets the extra $200 million, many of the community services it supports across the country will shrink drastically or fold completely.

AmeriCorps acknowledges the threat is real.

"We do recognize that good programs that deserve to be funded won't be," said Sandy Scott, a spokesman for AmeriCorps. "We're still exploring ways to maximize the number of members and help these organizations continue their work."

AmeriCorps members serve in more than 2,100 nonprofits, public agencies and faith-based organizations across the country.

They build affordable housing, tutor and mentor youths, and help after disasters.

Its members are generally college-age and earn a stipend of $9,300 for living expenses for a year of work. After completing their year, members can get a $4,725 grant for education costs.

AmeriCorps' financial problems stem in part from its enrollment last year of nearly 70,000 new members - about 20,000 more than it could afford.

And even though its $392 million budget for 2003 is about $41 million more than last year, Congress has earmarked nearly $100 million of that to help pay for the education grants. Congress also lowered AmeriCorps funds for service programs to $174 million from $241 million, a decline of about 28 percent.

The program's advocates warn that if it does not get more money quickly, many service programs will be forced to shut down and private funding that helps local programs survive also will dry up. Save AmeriCorps, a grassroots group, says about 300 state programs are at risk of extinction, and 200 national programs face a 50 percent reduction.

Rob Woldron, chief executive of Boston-based Jumpstart, said the 1,200 volunteers that it sends into city schools around the country would drop to about 400, meaning that Jumpstart would help only 1,500 children next year instead of 4,500.

City Year, a volunteer program in Philadelphia and other cities, says the budget cuts would force it to slash its membership from just over 1,000 to about 400. The group has already eliminated programs in several cities.

It also says the cuts are coming at a time of heightened interest in public service: About 17,000 inquiries were received for its 1,000 positions.

Kathy Lee, a teacher at Philadelphia's Turner Middle School, praised the AmeriCorps workers at her school: "We don't have the resources. They become the resources."

Champions of AmeriCorps say it's up to Bush to put some money where his mouth has been.

Bush has praised the program, singling it out in his 2002 State of the Union Address. He called for expanding it to 75,000 new members each year and sought $607.6 million for it. But some observers say Bush didn't fight to get the money and let Congress trim AmeriCorps' budget to $392 million.

Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said Bush clearly had not done everything he could to push the Republican-led Congress, which gives him what he wants when he insists.

Now the increasingly public campaign to win more funds for AmeriCorps could embarrass Bush if he fails to get "directly involved himself," Ornstein said.

"When you get something that you've spoken on repeatedly and it has fallen apart completely, you're going to be held to a higher standard," Ornstein said.

The White House maintains that Bush's public comments about AmeriCorps underscore his commitment to it.

He is seeking $555 million for AmeriCorps for fiscal 2004 - lower than his 2003 request, but still $163 million more than Congress gave it.

But congressional analyst Ornstein said: "Unless he [Bush] steps in directly to knock heads together in Congress, it's not going to happen."

Contact reporter Diego Ibarguen at 202-383-6026 or dibarguen@krwashington.com.

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