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National Disservice

President Obama’s feel-good draft

On March 18, the House of Representatives voted 321-105 to pass the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, and the Senate is expected quickly to follow suit. The GIVE Act more than triples the number of slots for AmeriCorps members from 75,000 to 250,000. And it takes a giant step toward expanding Washington’s power to make “service” compulsory for all young Americans.

President Obama praises AmeriCorps for embodying “the best of our nation’s history, diversity and commitment to service.” In reality, AmeriCorps’s essence is paying people on false pretenses to do unnecessary things.

Since President Clinton created the program in 1993, politicians of both parties have endlessly touted its recruits as volunteers toiling selflessly for the common good. But the average AmeriCorps member receives more than $15,000 a year in pay and other benefits, and almost 90 percent go on to work for government agencies or nonprofit groups. Rather than financial martyrdom, signing up for AmeriCorps is, for many, akin to a paid internship.

Even though AmeriCorps is popular with the Washington establishment, it has always been a laughingstock. During the Clinton administration, AmeriCorps members helped run a program in Buffalo that gave children $5 for each toy gun they brought in, as well as a certificate praising their decision not to play with these trinkets. In San Diego, AmeriCorps members busied themselves collecting used bras and panties for a homeless shelter. In Los Angeles, they foisted unreliable ultra-low-flush toilets on poor people.

Indeed, AmeriCorps’s projects produce little more than sanctimony and headlines for news-starved local newspapers. Among the program’s recent coups:

  • In San Francisco, AmeriCorps members busy themselves mediating elementary school playground disputes.

  • In Florida, AmeriCorps recruits in the Women in Distress program organized a poetry reading on the evils of domestic violence.

  • In Oswego, New York, they set up a donation bin to gather used cellphones for victims of domestic violence.

  • In Montana, members encouraged people to donate books to ship to Cameroon.

  • In Lafayette, Louisiana, with help from the local Junior League, AmeriCorps led an effort to recycle prom dresses for high-school students.

And 11 AmeriCorps members spent several weeks at a Biloxi, Mississippi elementary school last fall helping the school “go green.” Students gathered more than 3,000 pounds of recyclable material. Much was paper, which is currently fetching barely $100 a ton, but the project presumably made all participants glow with virtue.

Puppet shows are a favorite activity for AmeriCorps members around the country. In Springfield, Illinois, they donned puppets to school 3-year-olds at the Little Angels Child Care Center about the benefits of smoke detectors.

Reading-related and other education activities are often presented as a prime justification for tripling the program’s size. President Clinton set the standard when he declared in a 1997 radio address touting AmeriCorps’s literacy efforts: “All you really need to do is to roll up your sleeves, sit with a child and open a book together.’’ When it comes to the hard work of actually teaching kids how to read, opening books is apparently “close enough for government work.” But in truth, AmeriCorps has shown little if any competence at teaching literacy. It makes do with a “fun with books” motif that provides as much benefit as watching a few episodes of “Sesame Street.”

Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter, one of the program’s biggest proponents, praises AmeriCorps for its “15 years of scandal-free” history. Not exactly.

The program was tainted from the get-go. In its early years, members were routinely used as backdrops for photo opportunities when President Clinton arrived on tarmacs around the nation. And AmeriCorps “volunteers” were repeatedly involved in political advocacy and petitioning. The program gave over $1 million to ACORN.

The Mississippi Action for Community Education AmeriCorps program was purportedly recruiting food-stamp recipients. In reality, it was stacking the payroll with ghost employees. MACE’s director was convicted on 15 felony counts and sent to prison in 2002. And last year, Sacramento’s St. HOPE Academy, a showcase AmeriCorps program, was disbarred after an inspector-general investigation found that AmeriCorps members were detailed to serve as personal assistants to the academy’s founder, to perform menial work for the academy, and “to engage in political campaigning to the benefit of St. HOPE’s charter school.”

But AmeriCorps remains popular on Capitol Hill, at least in part because it allows members of Congress to flaunt their goodness. The program’s headquarters encourages local branches to organize “AmeriCorps-for-a-Day events with elected officials” to help get them on board. After some pols showed up one day five years ago to hammer a few nails at a D.C. house-building project, AmeriCorps issued a press release naming and praising the eight members of Congress. Photos from appearances at AmeriCorps Habitat for Humanity projects can embellish constituent newsletters and aid in re-election campaigns.

Politicians exploit AmeriCorps in other ways. Early in his first term, President George W. Bush hyped the expansion of AmeriCorps as a counterpunch against Osama bin Laden. Shortly after 9/11, AmeriCorps chief Leslie Lenkowsky told members, “the daily duties that you perform will also be helping to thwart terrorism itself.” He assured AmeriCorps recruits that their efforts were “as important to our nation’s security and well-being” as the actions of American troops at that moment fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. By 2003, Lenkowsky changed his tune, describing AmeriCorps as just “another cumbersome, unpredictable government bureaucracy.”

AmeriCorps claims that its members “mobilize” 1.7 million other Americans to volunteer each year. At best, this is the Tom Sawyer model of virtue—some people getting paid to sway other people to work for free. AmeriCorps’s actual achievements are a statistical charade. The organization routinely counts anyone who works in a project that AmeriCorps members “manage” as a new volunteer. Thus, if 20 people are already working at a house-building project where an AmeriCorps member temporarily supervises, they are all counted as AmeriCorps-generated volunteers.

AmeriCorps trumpets the assertion that, since its creation, “540,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 705 million hours of service.” Shirley Sagawa, a Clinton White House official, observed that presidents have always “set the measure of AmeriCorps [as] the number of bodies in it.” But AmeriCorps has never performed a credible analysis of the value of the service its members produce. Instead, it relies on Soviet bloc-style accounting—merely counting labor inputs and pretending the raw numbers prove grandiose achievements.

In 2003, the Office of Management and Budget concluded 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.” The General Accounting Office criticized the organization for failing to make any effort to measure the actual effect of its members’ actions.

But Congress continues to fill AmeriCorps ranks because it puts a smiley face on big government. Whether or not they produce anything, as long as AmeriCorps’s gray shirts are out there getting PR for helping people, Leviathan can be portrayed as a giant engine of compassion. “National service” is really just any subsidized activity that burnishes the image of the federal government.

If AmeriCorps were simply a garden-variety boondoggle, the fairy tales about its achievements would be relatively benign (except to taxpayers). But some politicians hope to exploit AmeriCorps’s cachet to gin up support for imposing compulsory labor requirements on all young Americans.

The GIVE act calls for the appointment of a Congressional Commission on Civic Service, raising the obvious question of whether congressmen deserve vastly more power over other Americans. But in Washington logic, since volunteering is a good thing, everybody should be forced to do it.

The commission will examine “the effect on the nation … if all individuals in the United States … were required to perform a certain amount of national service” and “whether a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed.” It will also consider whether tacitly repealing the 13th Amendment prohibition on involuntary servitude “would strengthen the social fabric of the Nation and overcome civic challenges by bringing together people from diverse economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds.”

Would political subjugation produce moral uplift? The Beltway answer: of course—because politicians are the nation’s leaders, the de facto “best and brightest.” While they are destroying the nation’s financial future with one trillion-dollar bailout after another, they have the gall to lecture young people about their obligations to the government.

The GIVE Act views military-style regimentation as a model for the nation. Its National Civil Community Corps would seek to “combine the best practices of civilian service with the best aspects of military service.” This reminds some critics of Obama’s declaration last July: “We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that is just as powerful, just as strong, just as well funded as the military.”

This is in character with Obama’s liberalism. Shortly after his election victory last November, the change.gov website announced the new president’s call for “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.” The wording was later changed to “setting a goal” for service. (Some states have already imposed such requirements on students as a condition for graduation.)

This is part of a long series of Democratic Party efforts to create pretexts to commandeer more of people’s lives. A dozen years ago, in a stunning conflation of compassion and compulsion, President Clinton announced that America needs “citizen servants.” He declared, “The will to serve has never been stronger.” That may or may not have been true, but the will to power is certainly at a high-water mark.

A New York Times editorial on March 24 hailed the GIVE Act for providing “a chance to constructively harness the idealism of thousands of Americans eager to contribute time and energy to solving the nation’s problems.” But the GIVE Act is idealistic only if one believes that citizens should take their values—and their “moral opportunities”—from their rulers.

It is a sad day when people line up to have their virtue certified by the most exploitative, dishonest class in the nation.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy and eight other books. 

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