by James Bovard
One part political slush fund, one part window dressing, youth service program failed to grow up.
President Barack Obama welcomed a flock of AmeriCorps recruits to the White House this morning to celebrate AmeriCorps’ 20th anniversary. They were joined by former president Bill Clinton, who founded the program in 1994. While AmeriCorps has produced many photo opportunities that warmed politicians’ hearts, the “national service” revolution the agency promised remains a mirage.
AmeriCorps consists of 75,000 members ( who collect up to $17,800 a year in salary and education benefits for laboring on social, environmental, education and other projects authorized by the agency headquarters. According to CEO Wendy Spencer, “For twenty years, AmeriCorps has been a powerful and proven solution to community needs across the nation.” Many AmeriCorps recruits work hard and have helped their fellow Americans, but many of the agency’s projects are spurred more by feelgood foolishness and political profiteering than by real community needs.
Hundred of members are serving as “recess referees” with Playworks AmeriCorps — a program that teaches anti-bullying lessons and conflict resolution to elementary school kids. Playworks says its brings “safe and inclusive play to all students” and that having AmeriCorps members “play alongside of children” adds “an important element of silliness and shared humanity.” But do we really need federal playground monitors?
AmeriCorps often sends its members to fill voids created by other government defaults. Thousands of AmeriCorps members are busy attempting to teach readingto young children — a task for which public schools already spend billions. Thanks to Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, AmeriCorps is partnering with the Justice Department to enroll and mentor “disconnected youth” — the same task for which the Job Corps was created 50 years ago.
Some AmeriCorps programs sound good but are little more than window-dressing for public policy disasters. President Obama announced in July that 300 AmeriCorps members will work with USDA restoring forests and grasslands. But the new program’s impact will be minuscule compared to the impact of the president’s aggressive support for ethanol usage. That mandate helped drive grain prices sky high and spurred farmers to plow under vast swaths of virgin prairie.
AmeriCorps members are sometimes used to fight political brush fires. The Obama administration is sending AmeriCorps members into immigration courts to help the recent flood of unaccompanied young illegal aliens avoid deportation.
One of AmeriCorps’ key “performance measures” for itself is boosting “the number of uninsured and economically disadvantaged individuals connected to or utilizing health care services.” AmeriCorps co-sponsored National Youth Enrollment Day on February 15 to boost ObamaCare sign-ups prior to the deadline this year for coverage.
Congress recently enacted a law prohibiting federally-funded food stamp recruiting but AmeriCorps continues paying scores of members to entice people onto the dole. AmeriCorps, along with USDA, is bankrolling the National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps whose primary goal is “increasing participation” in food stamps. Joel Berg, the director of that program, pockets a six-figure salary while issuing apocalyptic statements about America’s injustice to the poor. USDA denies bankrolling recruitment campaigns — but also insists that it is only recruitment if someone seeks “to persuade an individual who has made an informed choice not to apply for food stamps to change his or her decision and apply.”
AmeriCorps headquarters does little or no oversight to assure that grantees obey the federal ban on political advocacy. AmeriCorps is also scorning a federal law passed in 2010 to curb improper payments, instead simply ignoring whether grantees make proper use of the hundreds of millions of dollars they receive. A June 2014 Inspector General report condemned the agency for “shocking waste of taxpayer funds, lax oversight, unauthorized contractual commitments and widespread noncompliance with rules, regulations and sound contracting practices.” AmeriCorps failed to even use almost a third of the products for which it paid contractors. While AmeriCorps boasts that their time “serving” radically changes AmeriCorps members’ lives, it canceled a long term study of former members’ civic engagement and life skills after spending more than $3 million for the project. (
Former president Clinton and others boast that AmeriCorps recruits have put in a billion hours of “service” since 1994. But counting the number of hours clocked by government employees tells us nothing.
The Office of Management and Budget complained in 2003 that AmeriCorps focuses myopically on “the amount of time a person serves, as opposed to the impact on the community or participants.” The Government Accountability Office slammed AmeriCorps in 2010 for using performance measurements that “do not demonstrate results,” are “poorly aligned” with stated goals, and ignore “the quality of service provided.” AmeriCorps’ supposed achievements are largely based on self-reported data from grant recipients that GAO derided as unverified and unreliable.
After 20 years, AmeriCorps continues to be little more than social work tinged with messianic delusions. It is time to draw the curtain on AmeriCorps’ “body count” benevolence.
James Bovard is the author, most recently, of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan.