At a White House ceremony Monday, President Obama announced a Task Force on Expanding National Service. He is jumping onto a popular bandwagon: Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson recently promised that “National Service can heal a divided nation,” while a Politico headline promised that “National Service is Key to National Strength.” A Time magazine cover story urging compulsory service for all young people approvingly quoted a retired Air Force veteran: “There isn’t an 18-year-old boy who doesn’t need to get his butt kicked by someone in a position of complete authority.”
For Mr. Obama and many other service advocates, AmeriCorps — the federal program created by President Clinton in 1994 — is the epitome of idealism. One of Mr. Obama’s first legislative successes was the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, which authorized tripling the number of AmeriCorps recruits to 250,000. The president hailed AmeriCorps for embodying “the best of our nation’s history, diversity and commitment to service.”
However, AmeriCorps is fashionable largely because it puts a benevolent sheen on government action. Some of its 80,000 members have truly helped people they encountered, but most AmeriCorps programs resemble busywork with messianic pretensions.
AmeriCorps is beating the bushes to recruit more handout recipients. In Washington state, WithinReach AmeriCorps members sway low-income residents to accept food aid, Medicaid and subsidies for their utility bills. A Columbus, Ohio, program specifically requires AmeriCorps members to sign up at least 75 households for food stamps. Hunger Free Colorado brags that its AmeriCorps recruits are “vital” in efforts to “increase participation” in food stamps and “to ensure [recipients] do not fall off of the programs once enrolled.” While many AmeriCorps programs implore people to accept more free food, AmeriCorps also bankrolls FoodCorps in the same locales (officially labeled “high-obesity communities”) to plant astonishingly inefficient school gardens and harangue people to reform their diets.
AmeriCorps set a goal for itself in 1997 of “effective education and literacy for every child” in the nation. The agency then apparently decided that reading to children was “close enough for government work” to teaching children how to read. AmeriCorps members recently visited elementary schools across Montana to read a short story about Martin Luther King Jr. “After hearing the story, the kids draw, color and imagine what peace looks like to them,” the Great Falls Tribune reported. Puppet shows with environmental admonitions are another favorite AmeriCorps shtick.
While Mr. Obama boasts that AmeriCorps members “connect deeds to needs,” many of its projects spawn little more than sanctimony. The president recently met an AmeriCorps recruit serving with Playworks, which brings “safe and inclusive play to all students” in elementary schools via “having grown-ups play alongside of children” to add “an important element of silliness and shared humanity.”
Mr. Obama and many other liberals would like to see AmeriCorps-type programs vastly expanded, but the dirty little secret is that AmeriCorps recruits sometimes have little or nothing to do. Nicole Patterson, who received a Congressional Bronze Medal for Community Service, vented in an online blog headlined “Ten Reasons to Cut AmeriCorps”: “I spent six weeks playing Scrabble and kickball for America. I spent another two months sitting in a tool shed for America. We annoyed more people than we ever helped.”
Last summer, in a piece featured on the Huffington Post, Olga Rodriguez caterwauled that serving in AmeriCorps was destroying her work ethic. She admitted taking lengthy breaks in the middle of the day for “power yoga” and spending much of her time doing nothing or applying for better jobs. A 2011 inspector general report found that AmeriCorps members in a large program run by the New York City mayor’s office “were told to work from home with no substantial assignments.”
When Mr. Obama signed legislation expanding AmeriCorps in 2009, he promised that “we will measure our progress not just in number of hours served or volunteers mobilized.” The program has continued relying on Soviet-style accounting to gin up bragging points, though. The Government Accountability Office slammed the agency in 2000 for making no effort to gauge AmeriCorps’ impact on purported beneficiaries. In 2010, GAO again condemned the agency for using performance measurements that “do not demonstrate results” and are “poorly aligned” with stated goals. GAO noted that AmeriCorps made little or no effort to “test the accuracy of performance data submitted by grantees” and that “none of the measures” AmeriCorps uses measures “the quality of service provided” by its programs.
In his Monday announcement, Mr. Obama ordered federal agencies to “develop a mechanism to evaluate the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of national service and volunteering interventions.” However, there is no reason to expect more substantive results from this edict than from earlier attempts to compel AmeriCorps to justify its existence.
AmeriCorps is little more than social work tinged with messianic delusions. Its impact is negligible compared with that of scores of millions of Americans who don’t need federal bribes to do good deeds. Abolishing AmeriCorps would be a small step toward recognizing the principle that politicians do not have a divine right so spend Americans’ paychecks as they please.
James Bovard is the author most recently of an e-book memoir, “Public Policy Hooligan” (Sixth Street Books, 2012).