President Obama and former President Bill Clinton were surrounded by a swarm of gray-shirted devotees Sept. 12 as they celebrated the 20th birthday of AmeriCorps on the South Lawn of the White House. Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton and other speakers touted AmeriCorps as one of the greatest moral triumphs of the modern era. But the lofty rhetoric could not sweep the program’s paltry record under the rug.
Mr. Obama boasted that AmeriCorps’ 75,000 members “are doing their part to help make America safer and healthier, and more fair and more just.” However, Mr. Obama’s notion of justice rarely extends beyond his political self-interest. AmeriCorps recently commenced a new program to send its members into immigration courts to help the flood of recent Central American children who crossed the southern border to avoid deportation. Perhaps next year Obama will announce a new AmeriCorps program to aid school districts that are being thrown into conniptions to meet federal demands for special treatment for the favored “undocumented aliens.”
AmeriCorps announced a new partnership with HUD — the Affordable Housing AmeriCorps. A hundred AmeriCorps members “will build the capacity of nonprofit organizations to assist, inform, educate, and engage tenants living in privately owned, HUD-assisted properties when they are at risk of losing affordability protections or rental assistance.” AmeriCorps members will also be detailed to hoe community gardens and provide baby sitting (“day care”) for the residents. Rather than straighten out HUD programs, AmeriCorps will organize HUD-subsidized tenants to demand more benefits. The new corps will do nothing to curb the damage that Section 8 continues unleashing on cities and suburbs.
In the farm bill passed earlier this year, Congress prohibited federally funded food-stamp recruiting, but the Obama administration is ignoring the new law. AmeriCorps has a long and controversial history of food-stamp recruiting. The chief of one of its crown-jewel programs, the Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), was sent to prison for misusing federal funds intended for food-stamp outreach. (I alerted AmeriCorps’ inspector general to the grantee’s squirrelly explanations after I visited MACE headquarters in the Mississippi Delta.) When I interviewed AmeriCorps chief Harris Wofford (an honored guest at the Sept. 12 ceremony) in 1999, I asked how food-stamp recruiting meshed with his claim that AmeriCorps promoted self-reliance. Mr. Wofford replied, “A self-reliant citizen knows what their [sic] opportunities are and figures out how to make use of those opportunities.” The new key to self-reliance is knowing the address of the welfare office.
AmeriCorps currently partners with USDA to finance the National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps to boost the number of food-aid recipients. According to USDA, an organization is not engaged in recruiting unless it 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.” This sounds more like a definition of entrapment, but it permits USDA to continue merrily scorning congressional intent.
Mr. Obama declared that “AmeriCorps is as effective today as it’s ever been.” This should not have been a bragging point. AmeriCorps announced that it is launching a new “Record of Accomplishment” form for AmeriCorps members to “detail their experience” and “standardize how the federal government reports on the activities of AmeriCorps members.”
The new “Record of Accomplishment” will be as reliable as almost all of AmeriCorps’ success claims for the past 20 years. Most AmeriCorps programs are “self-evaluated” — the only evidence the agency possesses of what a program achieved is what grant recipients claim.
The Office of Management and Budget groused in 2003 that “AmeriCorps has not been able to demonstrate results. Its current focus is on the amount of time a person serves, as opposed to the impact on the community or participants.” GAO hammered AmeriCorps a few years ago for using performance measurements that “do not demonstrate results” and are “poorly aligned” with stated goals. GAO was chagrined that “none of the measures currently used by [AmeriCorps] measure the quality of service provided.”
But the agency clings to its statistical illusions. AmeriCorps chief Wendy Spencer told the White House audience that AmeriCorps members have “committed 1.2 billion hours of service to get things done for America” since 1994. How do you “commit” an hour of service? Ms. Spencer’s tortured syntax is a clue to the agency’s shaky record. AmeriCorps’ latest self-vindication only measures the number of hours clocked by government employees.
When AmeriCorps was created, some critics suspected that it would be a steppingstone to nationwide compulsory service. In a 1997 speech, Mr. Clinton announced that America needs “citizen servants … We need an era of big citizenship.” In his comments, Mr. Clinton praised Maryland and the District of Columbia for making “service” mandatory for any student seeking a high school diploma. But permitting politicians to seize arbitrary power to dictate what activities are sufficiently virtuous is incompatible with a free society. Regardless, some liberals are invoking AmeriCorps to drum up support for dragooning all young Americans for a year to instill them with proper values.
The Boston Globe reported that AmeriCorps advocates hope the “nostalgic celebration will spur new funding” for AmeriCorps. Mr. Obama and others still hope to bloat the program up to a quarter-million members. After 20 years, it is time to admit that America can no longer afford a politically contrived “national service” charade.
James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994).