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Back in 1993 it was called "the best of Bill Clinton" and something "no one can quarrel with" except possibly to argue that "the whole thing isn’t big enough." But a just-released Government Accounting Office report indicates that it is nonetheless big enough to be a fine example of Clintonesque waste in a time when far worthier programs are facing the budget-cutter’s axe.
"It" was the Clinton administration’s proposed national service program, later dubbed "AmeriCorps," under which a person would received a stipend and a $4,725 college educational voucher for providing civilian national service.
As part of an allegedly austere budget, Clinton wanted to spend $7.4 billion on AmeriCorps over five years. Congress gave its approval but scaled the program back to $1.5 billion for a three-year program.
Now the Republican-dominated House has voted to cut off funding for the program as of October 1, with the Senate set to consider that proposal shortly.
Some criticism of AmeriCorps is unfair, such as making fun of their tag as "volunteers" because they are paid. Our "all-volunteer Army" is paid, as are members of the Peace Corps and other programs generally considered volunteer.
Clearly the AmeriCorps members are volunteers in that they weren’t forced into the program, as would have been if a number of both conservative and liberal pundits had had their way.
Further, while the average stipend plus benefits value per hour, at a bit less than $7.50, is well above minimum wage, no youth is going to get rich working for AmeriCorps.
Yet, as is so often the case when the government is involved, much of the money allotted to the program somehow seems to be slipping through the cracks and crevices.
The GAO report found that AmeriCorps cost $26,654 per participant. While AmeriCorps claims its overhead is only 5% of its budget, the GAO report shows that over half the average expense per member goes to something other than pay and benefits.
In a July, 1994 letter to AmeriCorps critic Charles Grassley (Rep.-Iowa), Eli J. Segal, head of the Corporation for National Service, the parent organization of AmeriCorps, said that "the federal share [of the cost of supporting an AmeriCorps participant] should not exceed $13,000 on average."
In fact, the federal share was $20,806. The more the federal involvement, the higher the cost. For non-federal agencies receiving AmeriCorps grants, the funding average was $25,797 while for federal ones it was $31,017.
While 15% of AmeriCorp’s budget was to come from private contributions, so far less than 7% does — though Eli insists that with time that figure will improve.
In a country in which 80 million people claim to be doing at least some part-time volunteer work (though of course there is always a need for more), are 20,000 more volunteers a year at $26,654 a head really worth it? According to many pundits and editorialists, they are.
To read some accounts of AmeriCorps, one wonders how the country could have survived over two centuries without it. There they are, combating inner-city drug abuse and crime, cleaning up beaches, fighting global climate change. So heralded are they in the media that when Tennessee AmeriCorps members decided to work on Martin Luther King day it made the pages of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Such incredible dedication obviously deserves recognition.
Some of the projects have been of dubious value. The San FranciscoChronicle profiled one participant who earned her pay and benefits by providing AIDS education to deaf homosexuals. Apparently 14 years after the AIDS epidemic began, deaf San Francisco homosexuals remain ignorant of how the disease is spread.
Other projects are more dubious yet. In Denver, AmeriCorps members earned their pay by handing out leaflets attacking a city councilman.
But political activism is not so much the problem as plain old waste. A federal report on the Orange County, California AmeriCorps branch revealed that while the program was supposed to provide service programs for more than 1500 people in Orange County, none of the programs in the four participating cities ever had more than 25 participants, with most ranging from five to 15.
Other Orange County AmeriCorps projects, such as knitting a memorial quilt for survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, have a real air of make-work about them. By the way, the quilt was never finished.
But the Orange County program is just one bad apple out of a big national barrel right? Actually, the federal evaluation report stated, "Overall, this is a good AmeriCorps program." One shudders to think what a bad program is like. Clinton likens AmeriCorps to such projects as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and President Kennedy’s Peace Corps. Indeed, in his State of the Union address last January, Clinton accidentally referred to AmeriCorps as "the Peace Corps."
But both these programs had clearly defined goals. The CCC planted trees, fought forest fires, dug drainage ditches. The Peace Corps brought medical care, sanitation, and new agricultural techniques to underdeveloped parts of the world.
AmeriCorps’s charge, on the other hand, is an amorphous "Go out there and do some good!" Such a vague, feel-good, approach, some might say, is a nice metaphor for the Clinton administration in general.