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WILL `NATIONAL SERVICE’ BURDEN TAXPAYERS OR BOOST PATRIOTISM?

SHARE WILL `NATIONAL SERVICE’ BURDEN TAXPAYERS OR BOOST PATRIOTISM?

QUESTION: The National Service Trust Act of 1993 is poised to pass Congress. This pilot program would offer students educational awards of up to $10,000 in return for volunteer service to existing service organizations. Is this bill a good idea?

BETSY HART: The vision of scrub-faced teenagers happily marching off to do service to country in exchange for education vouchers may make us feel good, but it won't work. The program, even when fully implemented in 1997, will help only 150,000 students, or less than 5 percent of those who qualify for financial aid. And earning education bonuses totaling $10,000 after two years of full-time service is barely going to pay for a term at most universities. But the program can't be expanded because the cost is staggering.A student who qualifies for $10,000 in education vouchers will have cost the government an estimated $50,000! That's because of the health-care benefits, child-care costs and the minimum-wage level stipend Uncle Sam has promised to pay to students involved in the program in addition to their education vouchers. The limitations and cost are why program advocates have switched the debate from helping kids pay for college to the need to "encourage" kids to volunteer.

Paying kids to "volunteer" would make them more cynical, not more sensitive to the needs of others.

Yes, the goals of the national service program do have merit, but they can be met much more effectively. First, allow parents and kids to save for college with education IRAs. These would be tax deductible and tax-free savings that, with such favorable tax treatment, would accumulate rapidly. Second, if we want more young people to volunteer, it seems we just have to ask.

BONNIE ERBE: My colleague, going boldly where few (if any) have gone before, baldfacedly pronounces the president's national service plan dead on arrival. "It won't work," she declares. What exactly does it mean for this program to "work?" Does it mean that all people who now want to go to college, but can't afford to, earn enough "volunteering" to fork over cash for four years at Harvard? Does it mean that all troubled youth will shed the surly bonds of their indigency, enter the program and float into the Ph.D. program in molecular biology at Oxford?

My colleague points out that paid public service is tantamount to involuntary servitude imposed on vulnerable teens. How then, I ask, does that differ from the average high school experience? How many students would take algebra, physics, trigonometry or biology if they weren't required to do so? Modern-day American culture bombards teens with destructive messages. They learn to worship materialism; that social status is determined by the cars they drive and the sneakers they wear.

One small move toward encouraging kids to give of themselves is long overdue.