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AMERICORPS: A WASTE OF MONEY?

With a great deal of fanfare, President Clinton is launching his "domestic Peace Corps" this coming week by swearing in 15,000 of the 20,000 participants, most of them by satellite. But there are deep doubts as to whether the new program will accomplish much except spend more scarce federal dollars.

The president is touting the project as a noble experiment in which young people will volunteer for two years of community service and receive $4,725 each year for two years of college tuition or to pay off college loans.Unfortunately, the plan appears to be riddled with many holes. In addition to the $1.5 billion the program takes from the federal budget, somebody in local communities has to pay the "volunteers" a minimum wage to do a variety of service jobs that may range from tutoring to helping senior citizens, to patrolling with police to cleaning parks and streets, or anything else that needs to be done.

The loose, unstructured approach of the AmeriCorps program is troubling. Will the money be wasted? Will there be any significant, enduring demand for the volunteers? How much good will actually be accomplished? Will many of the youngsters actually get to college? Will the program become a bigger drain on the treasury? What kind of bureaucracy will be created to run the program? Or will the government just hand out checks and hope for the best?

Since local communities or businesses will have to pay the $7,500 in wages and the $2,000-$3,000 program cost per volunteer each year, the market for 100,000 eager participants - as envisioned by the Clinton administration - might be more limited than the president hopes.

The program might not be that good of a deal for the volunteers, either, as far as future college is concerned. Many would be better off going to school and working part-time than enrolling in AmeriCorps service. The administration clearly is hoping to tap a strong strain of idealism in American youth to make the program succeed.

Leaders of the program acknowledge that it will make mistakes, fall short of objectives at times and not solve problems that took decades to develop. But they say the volunteers will make a difference.

Let's hope they are right, but the whole concept appears shaky and uncertain. One of the strongest defenders of the new program, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., says that if AmeriCorps doesn't work, Congress can always get rid of it. Some endorsement!

If that is the best the program's staunch friends can do, opponents who describe AmeriCorps as a money-wasting boondoggle would seem to have the more accurate description and the best judgment.