The current issue of Ripon Forum includes a piece I wrote on the case against AmeriCorps and other national service boondoggles. The Forum is published by the Ripon Society, an organization of liberal Republicans founded in 1965. The same issue of the magazine features articles by Bob Dole, George HW Bush, and Chris Shays. I fit right into the line-up.
The National Service Illusion Ripon Forum April/May 2008
National Service is one of the hottest causes of presidential candidates. Both Barack Obama and John McCain are gung-ho for expanding Americorps to hire a quarter million people to perform federally-orchestrated good deeds. Former presidential candidate Senator Chris Dodd wanted to make community service mandatory for high school students and boost AmeriCorps to a million members. John Edwards also favored making national service mandatory.
But does America have a shortage of government workers?
AmeriCorps is the epitome of contemporary federal good intentions. AmeriCorps, which currently has roughly 75,000 paid recruits, has been very popular in Washington in part because it puts a smiley face on Uncle Sam at a time when many government policies are deeply unpopular.
AmeriCorps has consumed more than $4 billion in tax dollars since its creation in 1993. During the Clinton administration, AmeriCorps members helped run a program in Buffalo that gave children $5 for each toy gun they brought in — as well as a certificate praising their decision not to play with toy guns. In San Diego, AmeriCorps members busied themselves collecting used bras and panties for a homeless shelter. In Los Angeles, AmeriCorps members busied themselves foisting unreliable ultra-low-flush toilets on poor people. In New Jersey, AmeriCorps members enticed middle-class families to accept subsidized federal health insurance for their children.
President George W. Bush was a vigorous supporter of AmeriCorps in his 2000 campaign, and many Republicans expected that his team would make the program a pride to the nation. But the program is still an administrative train wreck. In 2002, it illegally spent more than $64 million than Congress appropriated – and yet was rewarded with a higher budget.
Bush’s first AmeriCorps chief, Leslie Lenkowsky, started out as a visionary idealist who promised great things from the federal program. But, when he resigned in 2003, Lenkowsky conceded that AmeriCorps is just “another cumbersome, unpredictable government bureaucracy.”
Though AmeriCorps abounds in “feel good” projects, it has never provided credible evidence of benefit to the United States. Instead, it relies on Soviet bloc-style accounting — merely counting labor inputs and pretending that the raw numbers prove grandiose achievements. 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.” The General Accounting Office noted that AmeriCorps “generally reports the results of its programs and activities by quantifying the amount of services AmeriCorps participants perform.” GAO criticized AmeriCorps for failing to make any effort to measure the actual effect of its members’ actions.
Most AmeriCorps success claims have no more credibility than a political campaign speech. The vast majority of AmeriCorps programs are “self-evaluated”: the only evidence AmeriCorps possesses of what a program achieved is what the grant recipients claim. One of the agency’s consultants encouraged AmeriCorps programs to inflate the number of claimed beneficiaries: “If you feel your program affects a broad group of individuals who may not be receiving personal services from members… then list the whole community.”
The advocates of a vast national service program assume that there are legions of unmet needs that the new government workers could perform. But the reason such needs are currently unmet is that politicians have either considered them not part of government’s obligation or because meeting the need is not considered worth the cost to taxpayers. There are hundreds of thousands of government agencies across the land, counting federal, state, and local governments. There are already more than 20 million people working for government in this country. Yet national service advocates talk as if the public sector is starved of resources.
National Service programs are more profitable for politicians than for citizens. USA Today noted in 1998 that AmeriCorps’ “T-shirted brigade is most well known nationally as the youthful backdrop for White House photo ops.” President Bush politically exploited AmeriCorps members almost as often as did Clinton.
Some congressmen also profiteer off AmeriCorps’ image. After some congressmen showed up one day in March 2004 to hammer some nails at a Habitat for Humanity house-building project in Washington, 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 could add flourishes to newsletters to constituents or for reelection campaigns. Congressmen also benefit when they announce AmeriCorps grants to organizations in their districts.
Some national service advocates insist that AmeriCorps’ failings should not be held against proposals to expand the federal role in service because their preferred program would leave it up to communities to decide how to use the new “volunteers.”
But if programs are not centrally controlled, local “initiatives” will soon transform it into a national laughingstock. This happened with CETA, a make-work program that was expanded to its doom under President Carter. CETA bankrolled such job-creating activities as building an artificial rock in Oregon for rock climbers to practice on, conducting a nude sculpture class in Miami where aspiring artists practiced Braille reading on each other, and sending CETA workers door-to-door in Florida to recruit people for food stamps.
More than 60 million Americans work as unpaid volunteers each year. Even if AmeriCorps was expanded to a quarter million recruits, it would amount to less than one half of one percent of the total of people who donate their time for what they consider good causes. And there is no reason to assume that paying “volunteers” multiplies productivity.
Rather than expanding national service programs, Congress should pull the plug on AmeriCorps. At a time of soaring deficits, the federal government can no longer afford to spend half a billion dollars a year on a bogus volunteer program whose results have been AWOL since the last century.
James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy (Palgrave, 2006), Feeling Your Pain (St. Martin’s 2000), Lost Rights (St. Martin’s, 1994), and other books.