Bush’s AmeriCorps Fraud

The Future of Freedom Foundation posted online today my article on AmeriCorps from the September 2007 Freedom Daily.

I admit: the first sentence is my favorite line in the piece.

Bush’s AmeriCorps Fraud                    Freedom Daily,  September 2007

by James Bovard

Politicians have long used moral doggerel to make citizens docile. Though President Bush is often verbally inept, he has hit the same chords his predecessors played to sway Americans to glorify government workers as moral icons worthy of gratitude and respect.

Two months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush announced that he was expanding AmeriCorps and that “all of us can become a September the 11th volunteer by making a commitment to service in our own communities.” Bush had long been a fan of AmeriCorps, flaunting his enthusiasm for it during the 2000 presidential campaign as proof of his compassionate conservatism.

AmeriCorps was started by President Clinton in 1993 to hire a legion of people to perform federally designated good deeds. In Mississippi, AmeriCorps members went door to door to recruit people for food stamps. In Buffalo, New York, AmeriCorps members helped run a program that gave children $5 for each toy gun they brought in. In Southern California, AmeriCorps members busied themselves foisting unreliable, ultra-low-flush toilets on poor people. In San Diego, AmeriCorps recruits carried out an undergarment drive to collect used bras and pantyhose for a local women’s center.

At the time Bush took office, many conservatives viewed AmeriCorps as incorrigible and demanded its abolition. Bush was far more interested in politically exploiting the program to showcase his own benevolence.

For their 1,700 hours of service, AmeriCorps members receive roughly $16,000 a year in cash and benefits, including a $4,725 education award that can be used for college costs or paying off college loans. Many AmeriCorps members are unskilled and earn more on the federal payroll than they would in private employment.

Bush hails AmeriCorps members, despite their paychecks, as “volunteers.” The agency refers to its recruits as “stipended volunteers.” The political exploitation of the volunteer label epitomizes the false piety that has always seeped from AmeriCorps.

A legacy of ineffectiveness

In most areas of AmeriCorps activity, its effect is negligible — at best:

In Louisiana, AmeriCorps members passed out free gun locks at Wal-Mart stores.

A team of 80 AmeriCorps members spent more than 20,000 hours hoeing corn and doing other tasks at the Garfield Farm Museum outside Geneva, Illinois.

AmeriCorps member Adrienne Blauser led a campaign to persuade the Idaho Transportation Department to rename parts of two state highways the Sacajawea Historical Byway.

An AmeriCorps member helped organize a “Pink Prom,” the first gay youth dance in Snohomish County, Washington.

AmeriCorps members in Worcester, Massachusetts, presented lessons in half a dozen schools about “Super Bowl Surge” — the problems that occur when millions of people watching the big game use the bathroom during half-time. “In one lesson, students were asked to consider what will happen if the New England Patriots football team makes it to the Super Bowl,” the Worcester Telegram and Gazette reported.

In Buffalo, AmeriCorps members busied themselves repairing private lawns damaged by government snow plows.

In Pueblo, Colorado, an AmeriCorps team spent the first week of March 2004 sifting trash and other material in the basement of a local museum. Ameri-Corps member Jane Howard Crutchfield beamed, “We’re learning a lot of history, just going through and sorting through all the old magazines from the 1940s till now, really.”

In Knoxville, Tennessee, AmeriCorps members planted a few acres of vegetables to give to soup kitchens and food-distribution centers. The program also involved three cats — Willow, Tiger Lily, and Lotus — to help with rodent control, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. Though this project may have filled AmeriCorps members with pride, a harvest the size of theirs could have been procured for poor folks at less cost at the nearest Safeway. These AmeriCorps members are paid more than farm workers, and my own observations of AmeriCorps members and farm workers suggest that farm workers are far more productive.

AmeriCorps members worked with the Tobacco Free Coalition of Wood County, Wisconsin, calling up local residents to survey their attitudes on secondhand smoke. Local government will use the survey results when it decides whether to ban all smoking in restaurants.

The Huntington, West Virginia, Herald-Dispatch reported that a local AmeriCorps member “set up a ‘March for Meals’ campaign as part of Martin Luther King Jr. week activities. As a result, 207 cans of food collected were “donated” to a local food bank. The cost to taxpayers of the AmeriCorps member’s salary during the food-can drive could easily have exceeded the value of the food collected (unless it was 207 cans of caviar). The same AmeriCorps member also “led students in coloring pictures to give to children” in a local hospital.

Puppet shows are a favorite activity for AmeriCorps members. In Springfield, Illinois, Ameri-Corps members presented a puppet show to edify three-year-olds at the Little Angels Child Care Center by alerting them to the benefits of smoke detectors. In Asheville, North Carolina, AmeriCorps members put on a puppet show for kids warning them about the dangers of child abuse.

A congressional favorite

AmeriCorps is popular on Capitol Hill in part because it sometimes provides easy opportunities for members of Congress to flaunt their virtue. After some congressional folks showed up one day in March 2004 to hammer some nails at a Habitat for Humanity house-building project in Washington, D.C., AmeriCorps issued a press release hyping their participation in the good deed. The press release named eight members of Congress and noted, “Working alongside the elected officials were two dozen AmeriCorps members from the D.C. chapter of Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps.” The home they helped build was to be given to a single mother of three. Photos from the appearance at the Habitat project could prove helpful for some congressional reelection campaigns.

One of the most important tasks of AmeriCorps members is to be waiting on airport tarmacs when Air Force One arrives and President Bush descends for local fundraisers and other public appearances. Bush routinely mentions AmeriCorps members by name in the subsequent speech. Conservatives harshly criticized President Clinton for using AmeriCorps members as official greeters for his travels. Bush has not been scathed by similar complaints.

Failure fixing frauds

AmeriCorps is a government program that supposedly rectifies the failures of other government programs. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, most fourth-grade students in government schools are unable to read proficiently. School and literacy-related activities are the most frequent task for AmeriCorps members — despite the fact that they have no particular competence in these areas, special skills, or training as teachers.

Instead, AmeriCorps pretends that reading to kids is “close enough for government work” to teaching kids how to read. Many AmeriCorps literacy programs are little more than “fun with books” — activities that have as much lasting benefit as watching a few episodes of Sesame Street. Ameri-Corps members sometimes appear as “guest readers” in schools. Yet some AmeriCorps members may find even this task a bit daunting. AmeriCorps assistant teachers in Mississippi, for instance, were only required to read at an eighth-grade level. Many AmeriCorps members lack a high-school degree.

Many AmeriCorps education activities have scant impact on learning. AmeriCorps members painted rainbows on the walls of an elementary school library in Pickens, South Carolina. The South Carolina Greenville News reported that, among other noteworthy achievements, Ameri-Corps member Kelly Jean Erwin “helped organize an arts closet so a teacher can more easily access materials for her students.”

AmeriCorps’s efforts may be inspired by a “nearness to moral greatness” theory of education — i.e., that mere proximity to an AmeriCorps member will spontaneously generate literacy. Yet even the Bush administration now recognizes that AmeriCorps education activities often flop. President Bush issued an executive order on February 27, 2004, demanding that AmeriCorps activities in schools “employ tutors who meet required paraprofessional qualifications.” This could greatly reduce the number of AmeriCorps classroom interventions. On the other hand, it could work out well for urban beautification programs, since more AmeriCorps members may be shifted to litter pickup (a favorite agency activity to generate positive press coverage).

Though AmeriCorps abounds in “feel good” projects, it has never provided credible evidence of benefit to the United States. The Office of Management and Budget concluded in 2003 that “AmeriCorps has not been able to demonstrate results. Its current focus is on the amount of time a person serves, as opposed to the impact on the community or participants.” OMB noted in 2004, “AmeriCorps accomplishments are difficult to measure, but its reported impact is small.” The General Accounting Office noted in 2000 that AmeriCorps “generally reports the results of its programs and activities by quantifying the amount of services AmeriCorps participants perform.” GAO criticized Ameri-Corps for failing to make any effort to measure the actual effect of its members’ actions.

AmeriCorps has always been grossly mismanaged. It is like a religious miracle that is continually exposed as a fake and a fraud — and yet people continue to make pilgrimages to the site and worship it — or at least to urge Congress to seize and spend other people’s money for site maintenance.

AmeriCorps is the most visible symbol and proof of the hollowness of Bush’s compassionate agenda. It is moral dementia to believe that government can create virtue simply by seizing some people’s paychecks and paying other people to piously wander the land wearing gray T-shirts and hats. AmeriCorps should be abolished ASAP.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy [2006] as well as The Bush Betrayal [2004], Lost Rights [1994] and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation. 


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21 Responses to Bush’s AmeriCorps Fraud

  1. W Baker December 14, 2007 at 12:16 pm #


    Good piece, and I did like your first sentence!

    But I think you’re being a little hard on these “volunteers”. Where else are school children going to learn about synchronized toilet flushing or discover their sexual bent?

    I’m just wondering whether I can get on the Federal teat if I give a couple of lessons in local schools about Jefferson Davis or Robert Lee?

    Merry Christmas though!

  2. Dirk W. Sabin December 14, 2007 at 2:44 pm #

    “Stipended volunteers” is a perfect spawn of Compassionate Conservativism”

    Still though, what could be a better role for our besotted government than supporting a “Pink Prom”?

    Maybe all these greeters help keep the wayward dog Barney from interfering with runway order.

    Washington’s sanctimony and care would vanish in a second if it did not pay them so well, you know , as “Stipended Volunteers” in our “Representative Government”

  3. Jim December 14, 2007 at 3:48 pm #

    Wes – I think the Federal Teat is very accessible these days. As long as you don’t praise Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run, there should not be any problems

  4. Jim December 14, 2007 at 3:49 pm #

    Dirk – yes, I think we would have a better quality of politician if we paid a third of the price.

    And also did not permit them to keep bundles of bribe money in their freezers.

  5. Ryan December 14, 2007 at 5:45 pm #

    Two months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush announced that he was expanding AmeriCorps and that “all of us can become a September the 11th volunteer by making a commitment to service in our own communities.”


    Seeing how all these folks are on file why can’t they be taken into the Armed Forces and deployed to Iraq? I’m sure they would be as effective as they are here.

    On another point I have an adopted feral cat. The boy was good when it came to dealing with a rat infestation my neighbor had. He killed three of the cusses. Do you think I can volunteer him to AmeriCorps?

    And finally for myself. I saw the toy gun buy back program. I have a toy company of Confederate soldiers and a battalion of Union soldiers just to make it fair that dates back to childhood. Each one of these minatures has a weapon. (some two) Do you think I would qualify under this program if I contacted AmeriCorps and turned them in?

  6. alpowolf December 14, 2007 at 10:13 pm #

    Stipended volunteers? After hearing that sort of mental flatulance, it’s a wonder to me that I still meet people who tell me we should let the government run things because that would be wiser and fairer.

  7. Tom Blanton December 14, 2007 at 10:52 pm #

    I’m wondering if AmeriCorps would pay me to put on my puppet show at the White House. It would really make me feel special if I could perform “Winky the One-Eyed Wonder Worm Waters the Vegetable Garden” for President Bush and the First Lady.

  8. Mace Price December 15, 2007 at 6:38 am #

    …I’ll bet they wouldn’t Tom. If the truth’s known? There’s probably a bounty on guys like us around The White House.

  9. alpowolf December 15, 2007 at 10:31 am #

    Tom: something tells me that Dick Cheney would get a kick out of your puppet show.

    (Pounding Bush on the back):”Bwuhahaha! Fuckin’ A!”

  10. Tom Blanton December 15, 2007 at 10:35 am #

    Well, Mace, do you think AmeriCorps would pay for Dick Cheney to see Whacky Winky’s Wild Waterboard Whirl? I think Mr. Cheney would really enjoy it.

    Heck, I’d be willing to do these puppet shows for a really cool AmeriCorps t-shirt. Actually, just knowing that I would be doing something to help my country would be reward enough.

  11. Dirk W. Sabin December 15, 2007 at 4:55 pm #

    Mr. Blanton, you are well advised to keep Whacky Winky on the QT because some of those courtiers in the Federal Precinct might start wide stancin ya .

    Funny how these things like Americares , and many others allow the Federalistas to stage local dog and pony shows to convey the charming idea that they might actually be practicing representative government. I’m sure all these organizations have done some good for someone, somewhere at some time but it’s all gotten just a little out of hand, kind of like Prohibition….except this time, ones government is a speakeasy with a K Street Address.

  12. Drive-by Darling December 17, 2007 at 8:34 am #

    Here’s something to *amuse* you:
    No one of any significance cares about your stupid, arrogant opinions. Everyone knows that bloggers are often unemployable, self-important losers who are oblivious to the fact that their opinions are laughable hogwash. And to those bloggers who are actually employed, has it escaped your awareness that nearly everyone rolls their eyes every time you open your mouth and spew your halitosis-laden blather? Instead of sitting on your bottom and criticizing the government, why don’t you do something useful and meaningful? You are only bitter because your AmeriCorps applications for stipend-volunteer employment were rejected. Get over it!

  13. Ryan December 17, 2007 at 7:32 pm #

    Drive-by Darling,

    You’re right. That was amusing.

    Are you still employed by AmeriCorps?

  14. Bruce January 9, 2008 at 1:01 pm #

    Wow, this is really nice. Pull out some examples of silliness or excess in the Americorps program, and use that to trash the whole program.

    My son is an Americorps volunteer and recent college grad, helping 4th graders improve their reading skills. He has several friends doing similar work, or helping resettle refugees. You’d do yourself a favor, and the rest of us, if you (and the bloggers above) would actually go to the Americorps site and look at the kinds of jobs the program looks to fill – the kinds of experiences that will be good for the 20 somethings populating the program. Sure there’s some fluff in the program, but there’s a lot of good that’s happening, too. Become informed.

  15. Bill January 9, 2008 at 1:35 pm #

    Food for thought from all of you

  16. Morgan January 31, 2008 at 12:38 pm #

    I agree with Bruce. I am a former AmeriCorps member and although there are silly little projects something so much bigger goes on. I spent seven months gutting out homes, and then rebuilding homes as well. And I can’t even tell you the personal growth I got from it. AmeriCorps helped open my eyes to what the world is really like, and it helped me grow so much.
    I think you should check out americorps.gov, or go and do it for a year yourself. See what you have to say after the fact, because until you do that you don’t deserve to say anything.

  17. Jennifer February 25, 2008 at 9:34 am #

    I am a former Americorps member who served one year performing conservation work in the SW. Now, I work for the county supervising an Americorps crew. I absolutely love Americorps and all that it has to offer. With our small program alone, we treated 1,199 acres for wildfire fuels reduction, maintained 70.3 miles of trail, built 1,423 trail structures, planted 5,595 trees, improved 3,742 acres of habitat, and we eradicated invasive plant species across 697 acres of riparian area! Have you ever volunteered before? Americorp requires every corpsmember to volunteer in the community outside of their normal working hours. Have you ever felt the satisfaction of dedicating one year of your life to better your community or country? I have. Americorps has opened many doors of opportunity to myself and others I know. The National Park Svc., Forest Svc., Bureau of Land Management, Hot Shots, and many other’s I could name have all hired former Americorp memebers from my program. Our program is only removing a small dent, in this massive wreck. Do you enjoy hiking? Are you content knowing your neighborhood will not be overtaken by a forest fire? Do you enjoy boating, fishing, or swimming? Do you enjoy being alive? Being able to breathe in the fresh air, and walk barefoot on the Earth that we all live on? I know I do, and I want to ensure that I have those freedoms for as long as I can. Check out our website, you might be the perfect candidate.

  18. Jay March 5, 2008 at 10:49 am #

    I would venture to say your opinion is based on blissful ignorance. Volunteers that are deployed into schools must have college degrees (BA min.)and most are aspiring teachers. Students relate better with these 20 somethings then they would with a bitter, balding old man like yourself. Rather than encouraging civic engagement, i suppose you propose to cut the program entirely and let citizens take over? Unless your in the top 10% economically, free time is hard to come by. College grads could make at least double the money in the private sector then what they are making in the AC program. How many people you know would work full-time for 9 months for a paycheck of $11,000? You could make more at McDonalds or cleaning bathrooms. Trying to help the impoverished urban communities rather than white flight is admirable and should be applauded, not denounced by those that know little about the program.
    We should expand the program instead of donating money to Haliburton and other crooked multi-nationals. At least this way, we would get something tangible for our tax dollars as opposed to stuffing money in the coffers of the already super rich.
    The Pentagon pays the same amount for a toilet seat that an AmeriCorps member makes in a year. Your ridicule should be focused elsewhere.

  19. Gwen Charles July 3, 2008 at 6:08 pm #

    What have you learned from actual AmeriCorps members? Our daughter graduated summa cum laude from university and decided to devote a year’s service to her country. She’s helped in Katrina rebuilding (and where did all that government money go????) and is currently helping with the wildfire situation in California after weeks of support training. The world is changed by people who enact the change themselves. Our family has volunteered in Adult Learning and ESL projects as well as food bank service. We’re not crazy about the way this administration has handled the past 7 years. But how DARE you pontificate about a program you obviously have researched only from online sites. TALK to the AmeriCorps people and check out their blogs. They are our future. Better them than C-average business majors and Harvard and Yale legacy graduates.

  20. James Clark July 12, 2008 at 3:58 pm #

    I just got done training and supervising a group of volunteers who helped nail shingles on a roof for a first time homeowner. My name is Jimbo Clark, and I am an AmeriCorps member serving with Knoxville Habitat for Humanity.

    Upon graduating from the University of Tennessee in May 2006, I knew that I wanted to serve my country, but I didn’t want to kill people, help kill people, or risk being killed like some of my high school friends who joined the military. Could I still have served my country without taking tax-payer money from the feel-good AmeriCorps brand? Probably. But at the time I signed up, I wanted that feeling of joining something bigger than myself, something official, something that people would respect me for. In other words, something that I could put on a resume 😉

    Naive? Probably. How many young, idealistic graduates aren’t naive? We all want to make the world a better place and we all want to be taken seriously.

    AmeriCorps gave me that opportunity. AmeriCorps granted about $11,000 to Knoxville Habitat for Humanity so that they could pay me $201.38 a week (after taxes) for 50 weeks to pour concrete foundations and sidewalks, frame walls, shingle roofs, side exteriors, pull wire, install cabinets, paint interiors, pick up and drop off supplies, and train and supervise volunteers to do the same.

    Could Knoxville Habitat for Humanity have hired a normal, non-AmeriCorps employee to do the same thing? Of course. They pay full-time construction staff two to three times the amount AmeriCorps pays me to do the exact same work.

    Could the homeowner have paid a for-profit builder to build her a house? No.

    I and most AmeriCorps members I know do work that poor people can’t pay full price for and that non-profits theoretically could pay full price for, but don’t need to pay full price for thanks to AmeriCorps. You see, most AmeriCorps funding goes to non-profits that write grants to support X AmeriCorps members to do A, B, and C for a year. Please think of AmeriCorps as a federally-funded nonprofit internship program rather than welfare for uneducated liberals.

    So, in that light, I believe one relevant non-rhetorical question to ask everyone is: should tax-payer money go to non-profit agencies?

    One way I think of it is like this: let’s say that we the people, or our elected representatives, have decided to devote $48,000 of our collective taxpayer money to housing the poor.

    Which is a more efficient solution:

    A) Paying for-profit builders full market price for materials and labor to build public housing projects, whose occupants build no equity and continue to drain our collective resources.

    B) Paying an AmeriCorps member far less than market price to train and supervise volunteers who use discounted and donated materials to build permanent homes.

    I myself have often wondered if my service to my country was actually worth the $16,000 it costs all of you each year. I hope that in 20 years I’ll have a chance to ask some of the 50 families I helped build homes for as an AmeriCorps member and see what they think. After all, as homeowners, off of public assistance, they will have paid back quite a bit of taxes by then.


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