Good morning. The beginning of a new year is a time of promise, and at the start of 1998, we have much to be thankful for. We've made much progress on our mission of preparing America for the 21st century and making our country work for all our people. Both unemployment and crime are at their lowest level in 24 years. The welfare rolls have dropped by a record 3.8 million. The deficit has been cut by 90 percent.
In 1997 in Washington, we passed the historic balanced budget; embraced the idea of national academic standards for our schools for the first time; extended health insurance coverage to 5 million children; moved ahead with our environmental agenda to save the Everglades, the ancient forests in California, and Yellowstone Park. And we made a safer, more prosperous world by ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention, expanding NATO, keeping the peace in Bosnia, and opening new opportunities for American high-tech products to be sold around the world. We also continued the work of building one America with our race initiative and the Presidents' Summit on Service.
As 1998 dawns, American families can look forward to tax cuts for their children and to truly historic tax relief that will make community college free for almost all Americans and help to pay for the cost of all education after high school, the largest such effort since the GI bill 50 years ago. I have done my best to give the American people a Government for the 21st century, not one that tries to do everything, nor one that does nothing, but a Government that gives Americans the tools and conditions to make the most of their own lives in a new world of information and technological revolution and globalization.
But I've also done my best to call forth a new spirit of citizen service here at home, as necessary to meet our new challenges and to fulfill our obligations both at home and around the world.
From the beginning, I have worked to give more Americans the chance to serve, to join with their fellow citizens to take responsibilities for their communities and our country. We created AmeriCorps, which has already given more than 100,000 young Americans the opportunity to serve our Nation and earn money for a college education. We strengthened that commitment with the Presidents' Summit on Service in Philadelphia, which already has moved thousands and thousands of Americans to give our children a helping hand. And this year, the day we honor Dr. Martin Luther King will be a day of service in communities all across America.
Today I want to talk about how we can strengthen one of the finest examples of citizen service, the Peace Corps. When President Kennedy founded the Peace Corps in 1961, he saw it as a bold experiment in public service that would unite our Nation's highest ideals with a pragmatic approach to bettering the lives of ordinary people around the world. He also saw it as an investment in our own future in an increasingly interdependent world. In the years since, it's paid off many times over.
Three decades ago, Peace Corps volunteers worked as teachers in villages in Africa and Asia, Latin America and the Pacific region. They helped communities inoculate their children against disease, clean their water, increase their harvests. In so doing, they helped communities and countries become stronger and more stable, making them better partners for us as we work together to meet common goals.
Today, the Peace Corps continues these efforts, but it's also adapting to the new needs of our era. Since the fall of communism, Peace Corps volunteers have gone to work in new democracies from Eastern Europe to central Asia, helping to nurture and strengthen free markets by teaching new entrepreneurs how to get their businesses running. Volunteers now work to protect the environment and help prevent the spread of AIDS.
Under Director Mark Gearan, the Peace Corps is also preparing to meet the challenges of the next century. To ensure that it does, I will ask Congress next month to continue its longtime bipartisan support for the Peace Corps and join me in putting 10,000 Peace Corps volunteers overseas by the year 2000. That's an increase of more than 50 percent from today's levels. I'll request that funding for the Peace Corps be increased by $48 million, the largest increase since the 1960's.
In a world where we're more and more affected by what happens beyond our borders, we have to work harder to overcome the divisions that undermine the integrity and quality of life around the world, as well as here at home. Strengthening the Peace Corps, giving more Americans opportunities to serve in humanity's cause is both an opportunity and an obligation we should seize in 1998.
Thanks for listening.