Saluting AmeriCorps in IBD

Good ol’ AmeriCorps just can’t get as many salutes as it deserves. This is the first time I have seen the phrase “bogus idealism” in a headline.
Rife With Bogus Idealism, Waste, AmeriCorps Doesn’t Need To Exist


President Obama signed legislation Tuesday to triple the number of AmeriCorps members from 75,000 to 250,000.

Obama declared that the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act is about “connecting deeds to needs.” Ironically, the signing ceremony and a $5 billion multiyear outlay for AmeriCorps came one day after Obama called on his cabinet members to trim $100 million in wasteful government spending.

Paying people on false pretenses to do unnecessary things is the soul of AmeriCorps. Since President Clinton created this program in 1993, politicians have endlessly touted its recruits as volunteers toiling selflessly for the common good.

But the average AmeriCorps members receives more than $15,000 on an annual basis in pay and other benefits. And most AmeriCorps members go on to work for government agencies or nonprofit groups. Their AmeriCorps gig is more of a career stepping stone than an act of financial hari-kari.

AmeriCorps’ prestige has perennially been at war with its boondoggles.

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.

Nowadays, many AmeriCorps programs are hailed in the media for projects that produce little more than sanctimony among participants:

• In Florida, AmeriCorps members in the “Women in Distress” program organized a poetry reading on the evils of domestic violence.

• In San Francisco, AmeriCorps members busy themselves mediating elementary-school playground disputes.

• In Montana, AmeriCorps members carried out a drive encouraging people to donate books to ship to Cameroon.

• In Oswego, N.Y., AmeriCorps members set up a donation bin to gather used cell phones for victims of domestic violence. AmeriCorps is beloved by politicians because it provides ample photo opportunities of them doing good deeds.

AmeriCorps headquarters encourages local programs to organize “AmeriCorps-for-a-Day events with elected officials” to help get them on board as supporters. A politician can show up, hammer three nails at a house-building project, and be assured of laudatory coverage in the local media.

AmeriCorps advocates claim that AmeriCorps members spur 1.7 million other Americans to volunteer each year. At best, this is the Tom Sawyer Model of Virtue: some people getting paid to sway other people to work for free.

In reality, AmeriCorps members have no such suasive gift. AmeriCorps routinely counts anyone who works in a project that AmeriCorps members “manage” as a new volunteer.

Thus, if 20 people are already working at a house building project where an AmeriCorps member temporarily supervises, all 20 can be counted as AmeriCorps-generated volunteers.

At the signing ceremony, Obama declared that “we will measure our progress not just in number of hours served or volunteers mobilized.”

But in reality, AmeriCorps has always relied on Soviet Bloc-style accounting to justify itself.

For instance, program defenders often assert that “540,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 705 million hours of service” since 1994.

Many individual programs evaluate themselves with raw numbers that mean little. AmeriCorps members are leading a donation drive for items to ship to the Pennsylvania National Guard in Iraq.

AmeriCorps’ Rachel Ralph-Doyle declared: “Our goal is to collect 200 pounds of donations.” AmeriCorps has never performed a credible analysis of the value of the service that its members produce.

Instead, meaningless aggregates are “close enough for government work” to prove that AmeriCorps is a cornucopia.

But for politicians, the issue is not what AmeriCorps members produce but how it makes people feel about the federal government. AmeriCorps puts a smiley face on Uncle Sam.

America has enough real volunteers: It does not need mass production of government-issue bogus volunteers. The glorification of AmeriCorps should awaken Americans to the bogus idealism permeating Washington.

• Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” and eight other books.


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6 Responses to Saluting AmeriCorps in IBD

  1. Marc April 29, 2009 at 7:00 am #

    Has it ever occurred to the morons advocating an expansion of AmeriCorps that the best way to help Americans would be to simply reduce taxes, regulations, and the relentless debasement of the currency? Oh, I forgot – there is nothing in that solution to enhance their political careers. Creating legions of young tax feeders does a much better in that regard.

  2. Tory II April 30, 2009 at 4:14 pm #

    The dems have Americorps and Acorn, the repubs have faith-based initiatives (and a few other doubtful organizations.)

    Both sides are destroying the country.

    “In Amerika, democratic elections are about determining who the next dictators will be. The winners get to bully the losers.”

  3. Dirk W. Sabin May 1, 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    Perhaps some of these new Americorps paid -volunteers (something only invented in Washington) can be put to work dispensing hugs to everyone as inflation starts to ratchet up to breathtaking levels not too far down the road. Let us not forget the poetry reading…Poetry and Hugs.. an Inflation Safety Net . Hugs for the blasted peasantry, let them eat tofu cake.

  4. Jim May 1, 2009 at 2:42 pm #

    I suspect that Vice President Biden would summon the bomb squad if people started hugging each other at such a perilous time.

  5. Will Morriset May 17, 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    Your editorial in IBD today really stung. I worked for Knoxville Habitat for Humanity from Aug 2006- Aug 2007 as a carpenter during the week and a crew leader on the weekends. Following college, I chose not to take the highest paying job I could find or move to a beach town and chase girls. I took a job that paid $11,500 plus the worst health coverage that I’ve ever received, for what? I worked 40 – 60 hours a week building houses for/with the working poor. I finished every day tired, sweaty, callused, and happy with what work I had accomplished. To be blunt – I worked my fucking ass off.

    My point is, I am disappointed with your one sided portrayal of AmeriCorps programs. To me, it cheapens the hard work that many people have done. It was already cheap enough – I think I got less than minimum wage all told. I know people who worked in the worthless programs you discussed but to give no credit the the tangible and useful work done is irresponsible.

    I helped construct 28 new homes, renovate 3, maintain our relatively large construction warehouse, and went to Mississippi to help with 2 homes for Katrina victims and taught countless people carpentry, roofing, siding, electrical, wood trim work, and masonry.

    Put that in your next article where you list the useful things that Americorps can do.
    I would like to make an additional point: I couldn’t agree more on the poor choice of ‘branding’ Americorps as volunteers. It never made sense to me. I made sacrifices and provided a needed service but I was paid. It’s a poor title. I do feel strongly that the service and sacrifice need to be fairly recognized both by Americorps leadership and the media as a whole.

  6. Jim May 18, 2009 at 7:39 am #

    I saw a Habitat for Humanity AmeriCorps project when I visited Mississippi in ’99. The HH projects seem to be above average for what AmeriCorps projects, and I did not make any criticisms of that Miss. project in the articles I did back then.

    I think the vast increase in the size of AmeriCorps will prove to be an utter nightmare as far as oversight and quality standards. Habitat for Humanity projects, in contrast to most AmeriCorps efforts, involve real work and measurable outputs.

    Habitat for Humanity existed long before AmeriCorps was created, and Habitat thrived without federal assistance. It can do so again. (There are also questions about the effect on Habitat of becoming at least somewhat dependent on federally-provided labor). Another issue – the nation has a glut of housing at this point, and producing even more low-cost homes will likely not help a revival in the housing market.