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Twelve years ago, Americans were asked a question that framed the view of many toward their gov-ern-ment.

Ronald Reagan asked, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" - an essential question for the "me generation."It measured government achievement, indeed society's achievements, in terms of each individual. The size of a house, account balance or salary became a yardstick for the well-being of society.

John Kennedy asked Americans a different question, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." President-elect Clinton is asking Americans today to redefine their relationship with government and society in terms of others as well as in terms of themselves.

Clinton proposes to build on successful models and develop a national program adapted to today's needs. Many are unfortunately all too familiar.

Poverty, homelessness, unemployment, illiteracy, drugs and hopelessness remain the realities of everyday life for too many Americans. Our natural resources and infrastructure are in need of renewal.

We must as a society renew our commitment to meet these critical needs and, as Clinton has proposed, revitalize our efforts with a new corps of talented vol-un-teers.

The concept of community service did not begin or end with John Kennedy. In fact, it has played an important role in our history. Since the Revolution, young Americans have been asked to make the greatest sacrifice of all and serve in the armed forces.

In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt, faced with a 25 percent unemployment rate, created the Civilian Conservation Corps to hire young men left jobless by the Depression. Within six months of its implementation, more than a quarter of a million men were working in conservation projects and receiving special training.

In the 1960s, Kennedy enabled America's youth to serve their country abroad through the Peace Corps. And in the 1970s, under the leadership of Richard Nixon, the ACTION agency was established to coordinate existing volunteer programs that address the needs of the community, like VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and the Older Americans Volunteer Programs.

Most recently, we saw the enactment of President Bush's Points of Light Foundation that rewards acts of service and encourages voluntarism.

The Clinton plan would motivate a new generation of volunteers by linking student loan forgiveness to community service. Students and families hard-pressed by rising tuitions would have access to student loans directly from the federal government. They would have the option of repaying these loans with community service or through an income contingent repayment plan managed by the Internal Revenue Service.

While the Clinton plan involves new spending, it saves federal dollars lost to defaults and payments to banks in the current system; these expenditures cost the government nearly $4 billion each year.

If we do not take steps today to embrace creative, constructive ideas to address the problems of many of our com-mun-i-ties, then our nation will soon find itself unable to compete, with declining wages and increasing hopelessness.

President-elect Bill Clinton offers an alternative - a thoughtful program providing young Americans with the opportunity to better the lives of others as well as their own.