The Plot To Kill AmeriCorps

Why do conservatives hate AmeriCorps so? If anybody should hate this youth service program, it’s the (liberal) public employee unions, whose members might plausibly worry about being displaced by AmeriCorps’ energetic platoon of federally subsidized do-gooders. In practice, though, the unions are at worst indifferent to AmeriCorps while the right is constantly trying to kill the program. The libertarian journalist James Bovard begins his book, Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years, with a takedown of AmeriCorps; it’s obvious that Bovard thinks the program is self-evidently wasteful, but Bovard’s horror stories (“In Lone Pine, Calif., AmeriCorps members put on a puppet show to warn 4-year-olds of the dangers of earthquakes”) have amazingly little bite. (To watch a video of Chatterbox debating Bovard on this and other aspects of his book, click here.) AmeriCorps’ budget is laughably small ($330 million), the pay is appropriately meager, and apparently it really does inspire kids to do good works, gratis, after they leave the program. Nonetheless, the Republican Congress tries every year to kill it.

Apparently George W. Bush has no particular animus toward AmeriCorps (though his campaign did mock Al Gore for wanting to expand it), and, as Leslie Lenkowsky points out in the Jan. 22 Weekly Standard, the program has “built a base of support among governors, mayors, and charity officials.” So the emerging plan of attack is to bore from within. Lenkowsky doesn’t put it quite that way in his Weekly Standard piece, but a careful reading makes his strategy clear. Why Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University and a director of the Corporation on National Service, which runs AmeriCorps, would want to kill a service program is somewhat less clear. But obviously, he does.

Lenkowsky’s idea is to voucherize AmeriCorps. It bothers him that Washington has so much control over what sort of activities AmeriCorps may fund. In 1996, for example, President Clinton decided that AmeriCorps should concentrate much of its spending on literacy programs. As a result, Lenkowsky says, “young people who wished to serve their country by helping, say, the elderly or a neighborhood development effort had fewer opportunities.” To correct this, Lenkowsky proposes that the Bush administration dole out AmeriCorps grants not to organizations but to individual program members (since they’re paid, Chatterbox will refrain from calling them “volunteers”) in the form of vouchers, which would be redeemed by whichever charity was chosen. (Lenkowsky cites as one possible recipient the National Association of Evangelicals.) The trouble with this plan, as Lenkowsky well knows, is that it’s even harder to determine what constitutes a legitimate service organization than it is to determine what constitutes a legitimate school. He writes:

[E]nsuring that the tens of thousands of participants really did perform meaningful work would be harder if they were attached to a wider array of organizations, including many unversed in government accounting. … Most of the nation’s charities are small and count their successes in small numbers. The most effective ones are frequently the least visible and least willing to be used as political props. Good management skills are by no means unappreciated or absent. But they may be less important to those in charge than doing what is necessary, even if it might later dismay the auditors.

Essentially, Lenkowsky is proposing that the Bush administration make AmeriCorps as unaccountable as is humanly possible. He concedes that it would become “much harder to confirm impressive-sounding statistics about numbers of children tutored, vacant lots cleaned up, and houses built,” but this prospect seems to please him, presumably because AmeriCorps’ champions would no longer be able to show their program to be a success. With a little luck, voucherizing AmeriCorps would lead to some truly lurid scandals about misappropriated funds (the amounts needn’t be large if the recipients are sufficiently inappropriate), outraged congressional hearings, and the creation of sufficient political momentum to kill the program. It’s a devilishly clever scheme, but Chatterbox thinks AmeriCorps’ supporters in Congress are probably smart enough to see through it.