Neo-conservative strategies that sound visionary when promoted by Reagan administration officials among themselves in Washington can become cold, clumsy and unreal when ideology is allowed to trample the human needs of the poor in the rest of the country. In few places are the results of strategies-before-people more starkly visible than in the busy office in midtown Manhattan of the Food and Hunger Hotline.
It runs a VISTA project (Volunteers In Service To America) that for two years has been successfully distributing food as well as operating an emergency food hot line. The program gives callers --the poor, the elderly and heads of low- income families--information on where food is available. Its director is Donna Lawrence, a woman of competence whose program has been praised by everyone from New York's senior senator, Daniel P. Moynihan, to Con Edison to local community groups. Lawrence says that the number of calls for emergency food help has tripled in two years. With less food available from federal programs, desperation is the daily reality for more and more of the clients.
Last October, the six VISTA volunteers who worked for the program at food centers in three poor neighborhoods were let go.
What happened to these New York volunteers was similar to the gutting of VISTA throughout the country. The Reagan administration, by March 1, reduced the number of volunteers by more than half--from 4,500 to fewer than 2,000. Funding was similarly cut. What little remains of the 17-year-old program--acclaimed in Congress by Republicans as by Democrats--is scheduled by Reagan officials for elimination by Sept. 30.
In trying to destroy a program that is needed and widely praised, nothing more is offered by the administration than some vague notions about a new spirit of voluntarism that it claims is overtaking America.
One of the specialists in this vagueness is Constance Horner, now in her first month as director of VISTA. A former English teacher at a private school, she had never been to a VISTA project before her appointment. Direct knowledge of the program's excellence won't get in her way during VISTA's death watch. But she does know something about volunteering. She says she gave 60 hours a week for three months to the Reagan-Bush campaign.
In her Washington office the other morning, Horner said that "it makes no sense to spend $7,000 to $8,000 a year to field a VISTA volunteer when we can field a non-stipended volunteer at a cost of $80 to $100 a year." She referred to the Retired Senior Volunteer Program as an example of low-cost voluntarism.
Her figures smacked of voodoo Reaganomics. VISTA volunteers receive $7,000 a year and put in not uncommon work weeks of 50 hours. That comes out to $2.69 an hour. Large percentages of the volunteers receiving this petty cash are minorities, are from the local area, and are low-income. To eliminate VISTA is to take away next-to-nothing allotments, first, from minorities and, second, from neighborhood people. Statistics show that on the average each VISTA volunteer helps generate $25,000 for the local communities, from getting grants from foundations to securing donations from local businesses. Thus, the voodoo "savings" created by the destruction of VISTA is actually a net loss of $18,000.
Horner, who calls herself a neo-conservative, knocked VISTA with the statement that by "heavily stipending" the kind of volunteers who join the program "I think we diminish" the spirit of voluntarism that the Reagan administration plans to rally. She spoke of a recent Gallup Poll as evidence that "people do have it in their hearts and schedules to do more by way of assistance to others."
Horner was disingenuous. The poll said that 52 percent do volunteer, but "voluntary activity" includes everything from singing in the church choir to tending a sick neighbor's dog. The intensity of volunteering that would be the equivalent of VISTA is minuscule.
Another document of dubious value that Horner said persuaded her that the killing of VISTA was needed came from the Heritage Foundation. It was entitled, "The New Left in Government: Part II. The VISTA Program as 'Institution-Building.' " It is little more than a right-wing scream sheet that tries vainly to revive discredited charges about VISTA grants during the Carter administration, when the program was under Sam Brown and Margery Tabankin. Both are represented as dangerous promoters of "new left activism" and "radical purposes." The report provides "recently obtained documentary evidence" that Tabankin once exchanged letters with Tom Hayden. Horner apparently swallowed this nonsense whole.
Congress may yet save VISTA. It has enough members who, unlike the ideological and inexperienced Horner, have seen the program at work and know its value. Without VISTA for the past 17 years, American voluntarism would have been a body without a heart.