Denial of Service

The battle over AmeriCorps


"Enemies will use any weapon at their disposal," warned Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at a Brookings Institution event last week, as part of an ideological "attack on things that we believe in."

Was he talking about al-Qaeda? Ba'athist hardliners, perhaps? No, the senator's words were directed at a more insidious foe: congressional opponents of AmeriCorps, the Clinton-spawned national program of "paid volunteerism," which was recently denied $100 million in emergency funding by a narrow vote in the House.

The panelists at the Brookings forum spoke with a single voice to condemn the Grinchian stinginess of representatives who, to hear the panel's version, take some kind of perverse pleasure at the thought of soup kitchens closing down. Listening to their complaints, not to mention a raft of articles linked at SaveAmeriCorps.org, including most recently a New York Times op-ed by literary establishment darling Dave Eggers, one could even be forgiven for thinking that the AmeriCorps budget is actually being cut this year. The reality is slightly more complex.

It turns out that last year, AmeriCorps' parent agency violated federal law by approving 20,000 more volunteers (and scholarships) than Congress had given it authority to fund. It remains an open question whether that tiny miscalculation was an instance of typical bureaucratic incompetence or clever politics. A cynical student of public choice theory (and aren't all public choice theorists, by definition, cynics?) might offer the following narrative: An agency eager for a larger budget spends $64 million that Congress never gave it. Then, when the House approves only a ten percent increase in funding, coupled with the eminently reasonable requirement that some of those funds be used to cover the program's illegal debts, its proponents get to holler about "drastic cuts." The strategy bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Social Security reform opponents, who accuse privatizers of wanting to "cut benefits," by which they mean "reduce the rate of projected increase in benefits, which, incidentally, can't actually be paid at current payroll tax rates anyway."

Unfortunately, AmeriCorps opponents have clouded the issue with a red herring argument: Volunteers, they say, are supposed to be volunteering, not getting paid for their efforts. True enough, but since we can't seem to manage to weed out laws in violation of the Constitution, it seems a little premature to be worrying about those that violate Webster's. The idea that the intrinsic nobility of working for free is so great that public service should never be rewarded is a non-starter. The good done by people who tutor kids or clean parks isn't reduced by the fact that they make a (low) wage doing it, even if they're not, strictly speaking, "volunteers." But those who advance this idea are at least treading in the neighborhood of a better argument against AmeriCorps.

Observers of American life from DeTocqueville on down have noted that, Robert Putnam's plaintive cries notwithstanding, we are a people remarkably inclined to volunteerism and civic engagement. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey found that some 59 million Americans volunteered at a median rate of about an hour a week over the one-year period ending in September of 2002. Officials say that, absent emergency appropriations, AmeriCorps will be unable to fill 20,000 of its 50,000 volunteer slots. That means that if every one of those 20,000 are deterred from volunteering by the absence of AmeriCorp funds, the American volunteer force will be diminished by three-hundredths of a percent.

Of course, AmeriCorps volunteers put in substantially more time than the one hour per week median: They serve between 20 and 40 hours, in fact. Yet those hours also come at a higher price, and may not generate results proportionate to those costs. Between $4,725 in scholarship money, "living stipends" (or, as they're called in the private sector, "wages"), and other costs, federal expenditures per volunteer total about $16,000. What is the public getting for that money? Journalist and author James Bovard lists among the projects to which volunteers are assigned the distribution of "ultra low-flush toilets" to the poor, earthquake safety puppet shows, literacy programs run by the barely literate, and buyback programs for toy guns. Even its own director described AmeriCorps to the Wall Street Journal as "another cumbersome, unpredictable government bureaucracy."

AmeriCorps doesn't just waste tax money, though. It diverts both private contributions and volunteer time to the programs that bear its imprimatur. After all, presumably many of those who accept AmeriCorps are genuinely interested in public service. Many of them would surely do at least some amount of volunteering for free anyway. Yet AmeriCorps doesn't just divert money to the marginal volunteer, the student who wouldn't commit any time without those stipends and scholarships. It allows those who would have been willing to work for free to draw a tax funded wage, provided that they direct their energies to projects the AmeriCorps bureaucracy has determined are most worthy.

Why, then, is devotion to the program so strong? At the Brookings event, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jane Eisner, who has been one of AmeriCorps' most ardent and persistent defenders, did admit some concern that young Americans are increasingly using community service as a substitute for political engagement. Eisner fears that low voter turnout rates coupled with high levels of volunteerism at the local level represent a troubling "privatization of citizenship."

AmeriCorps certainly does its part to combat that trend. In 1995, AmeriCorps gave a $1.1 million grant to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a group whose activities include aggressive lobbying for "living wages" and subsidized low-income housing. AmeriCorps volunteers have also been assigned to do clerical work for functionaries at a variety of federal agencies.

Kayla Drogosz of Brookings' religion and civil society project was fully in tune with Eisner, deriding private sector civic associations as "bird-watching groups" incapable of providing the deep sense of citizenship and social unity that government equivalents promote. And while the David Eggers op-ed did its best to refute Dick Armey's infamous quip that AmeriCorps constituted a "welfare program for aspiring yuppies," Eggers succeeded only in recasting it as psychotherapy and spiritual fulfillment for aspiring yuppies.

As with Social Security, support of this federal program is no less "ideological" than opposition to it. Just as the neoconservative right sees in foreign adventurism a new opportunity to achieve "national greatness" by uniting Americans in a common purpose, AmeriCorps boosters are less interested in the good works that serve as the program's public justification than in the grand sense of national community it's meant to inspire. Without AmeriCorps, after all, young people might conclude that they're perfectly capable of giving back to their communities without either the assistance or the direction of the federal government. And wouldn't that be a tragedy.