Denial of Service

The battle over AmeriCorps


"Enemies will use any weapon at their disposal," warned Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in their ideological "attack on things that we believe in."

The senator was referring not to Ba'athist hard-liners but to the insidious congressional opponents of AmeriCorps. The Clinton-spawned Works Progress Administration for the new millennium was denied $100 million in emergency funding by a narrow House vote just before the August recess.

A spate of articles, including a New York Times op-ed by literary establishment darling Dave Eggers, quickly condemned such stinginess. Listening to these complaints, you might think the AmeriCorps budget had actually been cut. The reality is slightly more complex.

It turns out AmeriCorps' parent corporation had violated federal law by approving 20,000 more volunteers—and scholarships—than Congress had funded, spending $64 million it didn't have. The causes of this snafu included "little or no communication among key Corporation executives, too much flexibility given to grantees regarding enrollments, and unreliable data on the number of AmeriCorps participants," according to the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Despite what one Office of Management and Budget spokesman called "Enron-like" accounting, Congress increased AmeriCorps funding by $42 million in 2003. So how can activists at SaveAmericorps.org say that "Congress cut funding from $240 million to $175 million in Federal Fiscal Year 2003"? The misleading $175 million figure includes only the budget line item for grants and ignores appropriations for, among other things, a trust to help pay off that illegal debt.

The fiscal year 2004 appropriation raises AmeriCorps' budget by another 10 percent, but until that money kicks in, officials say it will be unable to fill 20,000 of its 50,000 volunteer slots without an emergency appropriation. Let's put this "drastic," "crippling" reduction in perspective.

Assume, implausibly, that every one of those 20,000 workers is a full-time volunteer who completes the full 1,700 hours of AmeriCorps service, instead of bailing or being fired after resources have already been spent training him, as was the case for a median of 39 percent of volunteers across 24 AmeriCorps programs the GAO examined in 1997. Assume that all of them are deterred from volunteering by the absence of AmeriCorps funds, even though some are teachers or teaching assistants who draw an independent salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in the past year 59 million Americans volunteered a mean 143 hours each; other surveys put the figure even higher. The AmeriCorps cuts then represent about four-tenths of 1 percent of total American volunteer hours.

This is not a deadweight loss. AmeriCorps pays some volunteers who'd probably do at least some work for free. It also diverts private and state funds to programs that bear its imprimatur.

What sort of programs? Well, McCain, who hopes AmeriCorps will encourage participants to become politically involved, seems to be getting his wish. In 1995 it gave a $1.1 million grant to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a group whose activities include lobbying for "living wages" and subsidized low-income housing. (The grant eventually had to be returned.) Teachers and tutors undergo sensitivity training in which they identify themselves as economic, racial, and religious "oppressors" or "oppressed." AmeriCorps volunteers have also done busywork for a variety of federal agencies and bought toy guns back from toddlers.

AmeriCorps volunteers do accomplish some genuine good. But like the "national greatness" conservatives, many AmeriCorps boosters seem more interested in the grand sense of national community the program is meant to inspire. If it weren't for AmeriCorps, after all, young people might decide they're perfectly capable of giving back to their communities without the assistance or direction of the federal government. And wouldn't that be a tragedy?