February 25, 2002 - National Review: Corps-crazy

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Feb 25, 2002 - National Review Author(s): O'Beirne, Kate

The administration and its new, needless initiatives

THE spontaneous response of Americans to the Sept. 11 attacks should serve as a rebuke to critics who fret about an anemic civic spirit. Charities' coffers were filled, blood banks overflowed, and inventories of Old Glory were exhausted. In November, President Bush marveled that the Communities of Character initiative he had on the drawing board, "designed to spark a rebirth of citizenship and character and service," had been so abruptly overtaken: "The events of September the eleventh have caused that initiative to happen on its own, in ways we could never have imagined." But now Washington is getting into the act, with a new program-the USA Freedom Corps-to ensure that the federal government will have a role in mobilizing volunteers.

According to the president, "The federal government did not create this civic spirit; but we do have a responsibility to help support and encourage it where we can." So the Freedom Corps, based at the White House, will coordinate the activities of expanded current programs-AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and the Peace Corps-and a spanking new Citizens Corps that will focus on homeland security. Former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the board of AmeriCorps' parent, the Corporation for National and Community Service, explains that it's Washington's duty "to capture the civic spirit" evidenced after Sept.

11. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Goldsmith and Leslie Lenkowsky, the Corporation's CEO, concede that "the U.S. is rich with opportunities for its citizens to volunteer," but argue that AmeriCorps and its sister programs "are among the few ways Washington can respond to the many people who want, after Sept. 11, to express their patriotism."

Because AmeriCorps can "foster good citizenship," Goldsmith and Lenkowsky expect that their fellow conservatives will join with liberals to support the expanded program. But ever since Bill Clinton created it in 1993, AmeriCorps has involved a different sort of flagwaving for its conservative critics, who saw only red at the notion of a bureaucratized paid-"volunteer" program. Under AmeriCorps, about 50,000 members a year sign on to work between 20 and 40 hours a week, for up to two years, in exchange for a $4,725 annual award to use for college costs. About half of the participants also receive a living allowance, bringing the total cost of each AmeriCorps "volunteer" to $14,025 a year, according to Goldsmith.

Bush's proposal would increase the number of members by 25,000, and impose new accountability measures in response to the programs conservative critics.

But the critics are right: AmeriCorps is a wasteful boondoggle. After a few years of monitoring the program-and armed with critical reports from the General Accounting Office-the House Appropriations Committee eliminated the funding for AmeriCorps. (The program was spared by the Senate.) James Bovard found enough abuses in AmeriCorps to devote a whole chapter to it in his book Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years. Bovard found plenty of examples of AmeriCorps participants' wasting their time, engaging in liberal advocacy, and making wildly exaggerated claims about their accomplishments.

In Buffalo, for example, members ran a program that paid children $5 for each toy gun turned in; and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center's AmeriCorps program tackles "society's last 'acceptable' prejudice: anti-gay bias." About half of AmeriCorps members are involved in tutoring and mentoring programs, and Clinton praised participants for having "taught millions of children to read"; but this homage is dubious, given the lack of evidence that a single child is now literate because of AmeriCorps.

Nor have charges of waste, abuse, and excessive credit-claiming been the only criticisms of AmeriCorps. In 1996, John P Walters-then president of the New Citizenship Project, now the Bush administration's "drug czar"-expressed the philosophical reservations of the many conservatives who objected to AmeriCorps' expansion of government in the name of civic renewal. In a Policy Review article, he wrote that "using federal resources to promote voluntarism ... contradicts the principle of self-- government that lies at the heart of citizenship." He criticized the view of citizenship "based on universalized interests and responsibilities, not genuine familial and social attachments."

AmeriCorps is a misguided response . . . to a nonexistent problem: Even before Sept. 11, the citizenry was plenty active, without Washington's help. According to the most recent survey by the Independent Sector, a coalition of volunteer groups, in 2000, 44 percent of adults-an estimated 84 million people-volunteered with a formal organization, for an average of 3.6 hours a week (per volunteer). Charity closer to home, not included in the survey, would have included additional millions who are caring for an aging family member, babysitting for a relative, or helping a sick friend. An effort like the first President Bush's much-ridiculed "Thousand Points of Light"-a simple call to service, and a celebration of those who answer-could likely mobilize more volunteers than the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants that fund paid volunteers to piggyback on well-established local programs.

In one of its glossy brochures, the Corporation for National and Community Service points out that AmeriCorps' troops typically serve with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Boys and Girls Clubs. Former GOP congressional aide Derrick Max, who studied the program during his stint in the House, found that cost-- shifting wasn't uncommon, with an AmeriCorps worker sometimes replacing one of a community group's salaried employees.

Even though there's no shortage of volunteers, and no evident need for federal intervention between citizens and community groups, the current administration plans to create this new Citizens Corps, under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The corps will engage volunteers in homeland-security efforts by assessing possible terrorist threats (the Neighborhood Watch program is doubled) and helping local law enforcement. There is also an export component to this new push: The administration wants to double the number of Peace Corps workers over the next five years, to match the program's historic high of 15,000 in 1966.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist spots a fundamental contradiction in an administration committed to faithbased initiatives showing such enthusiasm for these secular do-gooders: "It always seemed to me that the Peace Corps secularized the missionary spirit that encouraged Americans to serve overseas."

And all of this volunteering won't come cheap. The president is asking for an additional $560 million to cover next year's costs for his new initiatives, and although Republican eyes are rolling all over Capitol Hill, he's likely to get exactly what he is asking for. One House member who has objected to AmeriCorps in the past says, "The federal government getting more involved in Bill Clinton's program of national service is the silliest idea I have ever heard of," before speculating ruefully that "the president has 350 votes for this."

Americans answered the call on Sept. 11, without waiting for Washington's guidance; and now they're going to pay for that snub.

Copyright National Review, Inc. Feb 25, 2002

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