Harris Wofford, a former U.S. senator and long-time Democratic political operative who ran AmeriCorps from 1995 to 2001, died last week at the age of 92. The New York Times hailed Wofford as “America’s volunteer in chief” and Clinton administration fixer Paul Begala saluted him as “a pragmatic idealist” who “believed in progress, not perfection.” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson gushed, “Cynicism melted around Wofford as if he were a bonfire in the snow.”
Not for me. When Wofford was AmeriCorps boss, I battered his program in Playboy (“The Return of the Hitler Youth?”), American Spectator, and The Washington Times, and later flogged it in the The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. I hammered him for more than an hour in a September 1999 interview that I believe exposed his cluelessness about AmeriCorps and his contempt for anyone who failed to venerate his program. Wofford seemed unable to see past his own trumpeted good intentions.
From the start, AmeriCorps has been a laughingstock and boondoggle. In Buffalo, AmeriCorps members helped run a program giving children $5 for each toy gun they turned in and a certificate “praising their decision not to play with toy guns.” In San Diego, AmeriCorps members busied themselves collecting used bras and panties for a homeless shelter. In Indianapolis, Americorps recruits painted a giant mural on the side of a pawnshop.
AmeriCorps thrived politically in part because the media mindlessly echoed its endless ludicrous success claims. President Bill Clinton asserted in 1999 that AmeriCorps members “have taught millions of children to read.” The previous year, Wofford boasted to Congress that AmeriCorps had set a goal of “effective education and literacy for every child.”
But most AmeriCorps recruits had no competence for that task. I visited an AmeriCorps assistant teacher training program in Mississippi where recruits were only required to read at an 8th grade level. (The grant application for this $1.2 million program was chockful of grammar and spelling errors.) AmeriCorps’s biggest education activity consisted of helping AmeriCorps recruits (presumably high school dropouts) qualify for a general equivalency degree.
Wofford assured a congressional committee in 1998 that a nationwide AmeriCorps program had boosted kids’ testing scores in math and language “by 63 percent to 97 percent.” One senator challenged the claim, wondering how dumb the kids had been for AmeriCorps to boost their scores by 97%. Wofford’s admission that the success claims were false was a rare event in Washington.
Many AmeriCorps projects were largely federally paid rabble-rousing, such as the subsidies for ACORN, the Political Asylum Project of Austin, the National Association of HUD Tenants, and the Gray Panthers of Rhode Island. (Planned Parenthood later joined AmeriCorps list of beneficiaries.)
Food stamp recruiting was a favorite activity that AmeriCorps bankrolled. I dropped in on one of their grantees, the Mississippi Action for Community Education—with the cuddly acronym, MACE. “Political advocacy” was one of MACE’s primary purposes, according to their website. AmeriCorps gave them a grant to boost food stamp enrollment in the Mississippi Delta. When I questioned their executive director about the program in Greenville, Mississippi, she was evasive and repeatedly contradicted MACE’s prior statements. I spoke to AmeriCorps’ Inspector General office after returning to Washington. They did some digging and found that instead of food stamp recruiting, MACE had 14 ghost employees (including the mayor of Metcalfe, Mississippi), who collected AmeriCorps wages while doing nothing for the program. MACE’s executive director was convicted and sentenced to 41 months in federal prison.
When I interviewed Wofford, I asked how food stamp recruiting meshed with his proclamation that “National service reduces our reliance on Government by mobilizing citizen action.” Wofford replied, “A self-reliant citizen knows what their opportunities are and figures out how to make use of those opportunities. You don’t have much self-reliance if there is a door there and you have not been shown the door.” Apparently, knowing the address of the welfare office is the new, improved key to self-reliance.
In that interview, Wofford talked about how AmeriCorps could provide its members with the “moral equivalent of war”—the supposed moral stimulus that occurs from subjugation to some higher collective goal. Many of its supporters hope that AmeriCorps will be a stepping stone to forcing all Americans to surrender their time in government-approved “service.”
During his partial term as U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Wofford championed legislation to give federal grants to high schools to impose compulsory service on all students. Wofford was a big supporter and surrogate on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Shortly after Obama won, his change.gov website announced that it was “developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year,” as I noted in a 2009 American Conservative piece. Legislation to expand AmeriCorps in 2009 initially called for a commission to examine “whether a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed,” but that provision was dropped in the final bill.
The seeds that Wofford helped sow are sprouting toxic new briar patches. Last week, the congressionally-created National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service announced that it was “exploring what a program that requires every American to complete a dedicated period of military, national, or public service might look like.” The commission, which lavished praise on AmeriCorps, is headed by former congressman Joe Heck (who was defeated in a 2016 senate race), who says the goal is to “create a universal expectation of service” by young people. USA Today noted that “Heck would not rule out some form of all-inclusive service.”
At initial hearings, Heck and his fellow commissioners have been told that national compulsory service would violate the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on involuntary servitude. But it would be naive to expect failed politicians to start giving a damn about the Constitution at this late date.
Wofford was sainted by the media for his role in championing AmeriCorps as a smiley face for Big Government. But billions of squandered tax dollars is only a small part of the potential final cost of this program.
AmeriCorps is viewed as a prototype by many advocates who seek to shackle all young people to “serve” politically-approved causes. The fact that AmeriCorps is a bureaucratic charade won’t matter to those who profit from ravaging the rights and liberties of an entire generation. Instead, advocates of national servitude can count on being hailed, like Wofford, as idealists, visionaries, and benefactors of humanity.