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AmeriCorps: Salvation through Handholding

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PRESIDENT CLINTON, in an August 9, 1999, speech to AmeriCorps members, declared, “AmeriCorps is living, daily, practical, flesh-and-blood proof that there’s a better way to live … that if we … hold hands and believe we’re going into the future together, we can change anything we want to change. You are the modern manifestation of the dream of America’s founders.”

In reality, AmeriCorps looks more like a federal-relief program for nightclub comics:

  • In Buffalo, New York, AmeriCorps members helped run a program 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 Lone Pine, California, AmeriCorps members put on a puppet show to warn four-year-olds of the dangers of earthquakes.
  • In Fort Collins, Colorado, AmeriCorps recruits poured out large piles of mud from which they sculpted imitations of ovens once used by Indians. AmeriCorps offered the mud monuments as its gift to local residents.
  • In San Diego, AmeriCorps recruits carried out an “Undergarment Drive” to collect used bras, panties, and pantyhose for a local women’s center.
  • In Los Angeles, AmeriCorps recruits busied themselves sewing a quilt to send to victims of the Oklahoma City bombing — but never bothered to finish the project.

AmeriCorps was supposed to provide an army of inspired labor to help reenergize the nonprofit sector of American life. Created in 1993, it may be President Clinton’s proudest achievement. Clinton said in 1994 that AmeriCorps “may have the most lasting legacy of anything I am able to do as your president, because it has the chance to embody all the things I ran for president to do.”

AmeriCorps recruits almost anyone age 17 and older. Full-time members are supposed to put in 1,700 hours of “service” and receive up to $8,750 as a stipend (sometimes paid as a straight wage), health insurance, emergency dental care, free child care, and an education award worth up to $4,750 for tuition or paying off college loans.

Many AmeriCorps recruits are on the dole, and the money they collect from AmeriCorps (unlike money from a private job) does not affect how much they receive in food stamps or housing subsidies. Actually, many AmeriCorps recruits are unskilled, and their pay and benefit package is more than they could earn in the private sector. The average recruit costs AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps sponsors more than $23,000 — the equivalent of almost $12 an hour.

AmeriCorps started with 20,000 recruits a year in 1994 and had 50,000 on the payroll by 1999 (many of whom worked only half- or quarter-time). The program does not quite sufficiently imbue all its members with the spirit of service: almost half of AmeriCorps recruits quit before completing their term of service. Clinton, in his final budget proposal in early 2000, proposed to boost AmeriCorps to 100,000 members by the year 2004.

Self-reliance, AmeriCorps-style

According to AmeriCorps’s chief (and former U.S. senator), Harris Wofford, “National service reduces our reliance on government by mobilizing citizen action.” But AmeriCorps members routinely do little more than beat the bushes to boost the number of Americans on the dole:

  • In Charleston, South Carolina, AmeriCorps members went door to door seeking to entice small businesses to apply for government-subsidized loans.
  • In Chicago, AmeriCorps members devoted themselves to creating a directory of welfare programs available for female Job Corps members, specifying addresses, contact numbers, and other pertinent information to help trainees get food stamps, subsidized day care, and public housing.
  • In New Jersey, AmeriCorps members are busy recruiting middle-class families to accept subsidized federal health insurance for their children under Clinton’s new “Kiddie Care” program.

The Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE) program, which has been on the AmeriCorps gravy train since 1994, promised in its 1999 grant application that its AmeriCorps members would “conduct door-to-door canvassing to identify potential food stamp recipients” and would also provide “assistance … in completing necessary applications for food stamps.” The goal of the program was to enroll “75 percent of surveyed rural Mississippi residents who are eligible for food stamps, but are not receiving them.” However, many people refuse to accept food stamps because of pride.

I asked AmeriCorps chief Wofford how food-stamp recruiting meshed with his statements that AmeriCorps promoted self-reliance. Wofford replied, “A self-reliant citizen knows what their [sic] opportunities are and figures out how to make use of those opportunities.” Apparently, the key to self-reliance is figuring out the address of the welfare office.

Federally paid rabble-rousing

President Clinton declared in 1994 that he looked forward to AmeriCorps members’ “revolutionizing life at the grassroots level.” Some AmeriCorps projects seem to be largely federally paid rabble-rousing. AmeriCorps’s support of the Whatcom [Washington State] Human Rights Task Force is paying for AmeriCorps members to “organize the Hispanic population … to develop a program of monitoring, reporting, and stopping INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] abuses of the Hispanic population” and to “write at least six press releases. Press releases should include the results of needs assessment and INS reports.” And in case these actions are not sufficient to incite public opinion, an AmeriCorps member will also “organize rallies as needed,” according to the organization’s successful grant application.

The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center (LAGLC), the nation’s largest gay rights organization, has received more than $200,000 in support from AmeriCorps. The LAGLC AmeriCorps program is “focusing on society’s last ‘acceptable’prejudice: anti-gay bias,” according to a LAGLC program update. AmeriCorps members distributed a survey in L.A. schools that implied that students should report to school authorities any time they heard any student make a derogatory comment to any other student. An example of anti-gay bias that Gwen Baldwin, the LAGLC executive director, offered was “one person not being invited to a lunch table.” Do we really need federal intervention to keep track of the seating arrangements in school cafeterias?

Maximizing false accusation

AmeriCorps has provided more than $600,000 in aid for the Child Victim Rapid Response Program run by Florida’s attorney general’s office. This program sends 19 AmeriCorps recruits into schoolrooms to lecture about child abuse and domestic violence. The program’s 1999 AmeriCorps grant application promised that, as a result of the program, “there will be an increase by 25 percent over last year in the number of incidents of child abuse reported … as well as the number of domestic violence incidents reported to police by the student population.” (The goal of a 25 percent increase in accusations was mentioned several places in the application.)

The grant application also set a goal of a 25 percent increase — from 331 to 415 — in the number of students and families served with emergency injunctions and child-custody orders as a result of AmeriCorps activism. Once the accusations have been made and parents dragged into the dock, AmeriCorps helps pay for the accusers’ court costs, including the costs of a court reporter.

I called program director Cynthia Rodgers and asked whether there is any kind of safeguard in the system to avoid encouraging false accusations. Ms. Rodgers responded, “No. But if you look at reports out there, the number of false accusations is low — the criminal justice system, and the people who interview children, are very sophisticated, and certainly much more sophisticated than a child’s mind.”

However, Florida was the site of some of the worst child-abuse witch-hunts in recent decades, including the false child-abuse accusations in a case spearheaded by former Florida State Attorney Janet Reno’s office and based on a bevy of absurd accusations coerced out of young children by psychiatrists. I asked how many of the charges of child abuse that resulted from AmeriCorps activism were “sustained” — i.e., how many of the parents were found guilty. Ms. Rodgers replied, “We would not even address that,” and stated that she had no information on the results of the charges.

This practically implies that increasing the number of child accusations is in the public interest, regardless of whether the charges are valid. (False child-abuse accusations have become a national scandal in recent years.)

Conclusion

More than 93 million Americans work as unpaid volunteers each year. At best, AmeriCorps’s 40,000 members amount to less than 1/20 of 1 percent of all the volunteers in America. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the program’s most vigilant critic, observed: “What the president has done is create a national identity for AmeriCorps that in some ways competes with these other charitable organizations.”

AmeriCorps defenders talk as if the program were a good thing in itself. But the more the federal government confiscates to spend for this bogus volunteer program, the less citizens will have to finance their own preferred voluntary and charitable activities.

AmeriCorps is little more than social work tinged with messianic delusions. AmeriCorps is special because it is work that is “politically blessed” — work that has received the blessing of politicians — and thus is far more meaningful than mere private sector work — as if any work that is financed by coercion (tax payments) is more meaningful than work paid for voluntarily.

At best, AmeriCorps allows politicians to claim credit for good deeds that citizens would have performed if AmeriCorps never existed. At worst, AmeriCorps pulls nonprofit organizations into the government orbit and sows the seeds of bureaucratization and politicalization. AmeriCorps makes far more “difference” to politicians than to any other group. For every other group in society, AmeriCorps’s efforts are negligible compared with those of the legions of volunteers who don’t need a federal handout to do a good deed.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.