- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2000

President Clinton is planning a major push to persuade Congress to permanently reauthorize AmeriCorps.

In a speech last August to AmeriCorps members, Mr. Clinton 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." In reality, AmeriCorps is making national service a national laughingstock.

In Buffalo, N.Y., AmeriCorps members helped run a program that gave children $5 for each toy gun they brought in. In Lone Pine, Calif., AmeriCorps members put on a puppet show to warn 4-year-olds of the dangers of earthquakes. In Los Angeles, AmeriCorps recruits devoted themselves to sewing a quilt to sent to victims of the Oklahoma City bombing but never bothered to finish the project.

AmeriCorps members are busy signing up new clients for the welfare state. In the Mississippi Delta, AmeriCorps members are going door-to-door to persuade more people to sign up for food stamps. AmeriCorps is bankrolling housing activists to pressure Congress to perpetuate federal subsidies for renters.

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." Anti-gay violence is deplorable: but do we really need federal intervention to keep track of the seating arrangements in school cafeterias?

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but promising to teach children to read is the last refuge of federal boondoggles. AmeriCorps is a flagbearer in Mr. Clinton's literacy crusade. Mr. Clinton congratulated AmeriCorps members: "You have … taught millions of children to read."

But AmeriCorps has no evidence to support Mr. Clinton's claim. Robert Sweet, the former director of the National Institute of Education, observed, "AmeriCorps is not working… . The whole foundation of this approach toward teaching reading is faulty." SomeAmeriCorps programs take welfare recipients off the streets and send them into classrooms to be reading tutors.

Yet, welfare recipients are among the least literate groups in American society. AmeriCorps, created in 1993, now has 50,000 members and a budget of $433 million. AmeriCorps recruits almost anyone age 17 and older. Many 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 its sponsors more than $23,000 the equivalent of almost $12 an hour.

The General Accounting Office recently revealed that AmeriCorps relies on Soviet-style accounting to gin up its achievement claims. GAO 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 impact of its members' actions. Many AmeriCorps programs have achieved nothing more glorious than boosting the number of government employees standing around with their hands in their pockets.

Local AmeriCorps programs have been hit by one scandal after another from cases of people receiving AmeriCorps credit for people working at McDonald's, or baby-sitting, or attending Sunday School. Amazingly, AmeriCorps management denies any responsibility for local abuses. AmeriCorps chief Harris Wofford declared AmeriCorps headquarters "has no direct contractual relationship with operating or placement sites" and that headquarters "efforts are focused on strengthening state commission and parent organizations so that they conduct proper training and oversight at the local level."

However, recent inspector general reports found some state commissions are so slipshod and negligent they appear to be little more than pass-through operations to launder federal money to local recipients.

More than 93 million Americans work as unpaid volunteers each year. At best, AmeriCorps' 50,000 members amount to barely one-twentieth of 1 percent of all the volunteers in America. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, 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 is little more than social work tinged with messianic delusions. Citizens should no longer be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes each year for a bunch of photo opportunities for politicians and do-gooders. The American charitable spirit can do just fine without the federal government rewarding people for working at McDonald's.

James Bovard is the author of the just-published " 'Feeling Your Pain': The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years" (St. Martin's Press). Portions of this article appear in the current American Spectator.

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