Tuesday 31 March 2009
Congress expanded public service programs and renamed the legislation in honor of veteran Sen. Edward Kennedy. (Photo: Brook Kraft / Corbis for Time)
Washington - The U.S. Congress gave its final approval on Tuesday to the biggest expansion in a half century of public service programs that seek armies of volunteers to meet people's needs during economic hard times.
At a cost of $5.7 billion over five years, the bill would establish and expand community service programs to work in a host of fronts including education and healthcare, while responding to disasters and providing opportunities for the old, young, needy and disabled at home and abroad.
Heeding calls by President Barack Obama, the often-divided Congress approved the initiative overwhelmingly.
The House passed the bill, 275-149, a week after it sailed through the Senate, 78-20. With rising unemployment and record home foreclosures, Obama vowed to quickly sign it into law.
"I call on all Americans to stand up and do what they can to serve their communities, shape our history and enrich both their own lives and the lives of others," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.
AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs, would carry out much of the work and would have its workforce more than tripled to 250,000. Members of AmeriCorps receive a stipend to help cover expenses as well as an annual award to help with education costs that, under the bill, would increase to $5,350 from $4,725.
The legislation also would create service opportunities for older Americans and retirees and allow them to transfer their education awards - up to $1,000 for at least 350 hours of service - to a child, foster child or grandchild.
Summer of Service
In addition, it would create a Summer of Service program for middle- and high-school students who can earn a $500 education award to put toward college. It also would bolster a program that supports service opportunities for skilled professionals in developing countries.
The measure would designate September 11 as a national day of service and remembrance of the 2001 attacks on the United States.
In passing the legislation, lawmakers renamed it in honor of a veteran senator who has dedicated much of his life to promoting public service, Democrat Edward Kennedy.
Kennedy, a chief sponsor of the bipartisan bill, said, "This legislation will enable many more Americans to do something for their country."
The measure is seen as providing the biggest boost in community service programs since Kennedy's older brother, then-President John Kennedy, made a famous appeal in 1961: "My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."
Kennedy established the Peace Corps to provide Americans an opportunity to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.
Shortly after he was assassinated in 1963, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, created VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, now part of AmeriCorps.
(Editing by Will Dunham.)