The American Spectator
July 2000 / August 2000
HEADLINE: AmeriCorps: Salvation via Hand-Holding
Bill Clinton's favorite government program offers nice work to any future
low-rent Democratic operative who can get it.
BYLINE: James Bovard; James Bovard is a Washington writer. Parts of this
article are adapted from his book "Feeling Your Pain": The Explosion and Abuse
of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years, forthcoming from St. Martin's
Press in September.
AmeriCorps, the "national service" scam created in 1993, may be President
Clinton's proudest achievement. In 1994 he said that AmeriCorps " may have the
most lasting legacy of anything I am able to do as your president." In his 1995
State of the Union, Clinton saluted AmeriCorps as " citizenship at its best." In
February 1999, at an AmeriCorps recruiting rally, Clinton declared: "America
needs to think of itself as sort of a giant AmeriCorps, getting things done
together." In appealing for support to expand the program, he said he wants "to
use this moment to prove that this generation of young people, far from being a
generation of cynics and slackers, is instead a generation of doers and
patriots." In a speech to AmeriCorps members last August 9, he declared, "You
are the modern manifestation of the dream of America's founders." As always,
reality and Bill Clinton move in opposite directions.
In practice, AmeriCorps operates more like a federal relief program for
In San Diego, AmeriCorps recruits carried out the "First Annual Undergarment
Drive," a high-profile campaign to collect used bras, panties, and pantyhose for
a local women's center.
In Buffalo, New York, AmeriCorps members helped run a program that gave
children $5 for each toy gun they brought in--as well as a certificate praising
their decision not to play with toy guns.
In Lone Pine, California, AmeriCorps members put on a puppet show to warn
four-year-olds of the dangers of earthquakes.
In Los Angeles, AmeriCorps recruits busied themselves sewing a quilt to send
to victims of the Oklahoma City bombing--but never bothered to finish the
Beginning with 20,000 recruits a year in 1994, by 1999 AmeriCorps had 50, 000
on the payroll (many of whom worked only part-time). Almost half quit the
program before completing their term of service. Clinton, in his final budget,
proposed to double AmeriCorps to 100,000 members by 2004 and to increase its
budget from $433 million to $533 million. It's a small price to pay to mobilize
a key component of the Democratic Party base.
AmeriCorps recruits almost anyone age 17 and older. Full-time members are
supposed to put in 1,700 hours of "service" a year in return for a stipend of up
to $8,750 (sometimes paid as a straight wage) plus health insurance, emergency
dental care, free child care, and an education award worth up to $4, 750 for
tuition or paying off college loans. Many recruits are on the dole, and the
money they collect from AmeriCorps (unlike money from a private job) does not
affect how much they receive in food stamps or housing subsidies. Because many
recruits are unskilled, their pay and benefit package is more than they could
earn in the private sector. The average recruit costs AmeriCorps and its
sponsors more than $23,000--the equivalent of almost $12 an hour for
Nobody Goes Hungry
As head of AmeriCorps, former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford--a veteran of John
Kennedy's fabled Peace Corps and until his defeat in 1994 an outspoken proponent
of the Clintons' nationalized health care proposal--has all the right qualities
for the job: a reputation for moral bombast and, on Capitol Hill, renown as a
man of a million excuses and empty promises. Like his boss, he talks the
requisite talk. One favorite claim: "National service reduces our reliance on
government by mobilizing citizen action." Consider what this means in practice:
In Charleston, South Carolina, AmeriCorps members went door-to-door seeking
to entice small businesses to apply for government-subsidized loans.
In Chicago, members compiled a directory of welfare programs available for
female Job Corps members, specifying addresses, contact numbers, and other
pertinent information to help trainees get food stamps, subsidized daycare, and
In New Jersey, AmeriCorps members are busy recruiting middle-class families
to accept subsidized federal health insurance for their children under Clinton's
new "Kiddie Care" program.
In Washington state, AmeriCorps is bankrolling the Welfare Rights Organizing
Coalition. According to coalition director Jean Colman, "People are poor because
they don't have enough money. We don't seem to trust poor people enough to spend
their money wisely, so we don't give them enough."
A model of Wofford-style citizen involvement is the Mississippi Action for
Community Education (MACE) program, which AmeriCorps has helped sponsor since
1994. In its 1999 grant application, MACE openly promised that its AmeriCorps
members would "conduct door-to-door canvassing to identify potential food stamp
recipients" and would also provide "assistance...in completing necessary
applications for food stamps." The goal was to enroll "75% of surveyed rural
Mississippi residents who are eligible for food stamps, but are not receiving
MACE is based in Greenville, Mississippi, the heart of the Mississippi
Delta--one of the poorest regions in America. Yet its headquarters occupy one of
the fanciest buildings in Greenville, and the plush leather chairs in its
waiting room offer stark contrast to the shabbiness of the neighborhood. When
asked about the AmeriCorps program, MACE Director Fanny Woods indicated it had
little or nothing to do with food stamps. When reminded of a passage from the
MACE Website that mentioned food stamp recruitment, Woods conceded her
organization did inform some people about food stamps. But she also emphatically
noted that it would be illegal for AmeriCorps members to directly advocate that
people go on food stamps. When told of reports that AmeriCorps members were
going door-to-door telling people about food stamps, Woods admitted workers
drove people directly to the food stamp offices--but did not go inside with them
because that would be illegal.
MACE is one of four AmeriCorps "Beyond Food" programs devoted to boosting
food aid. The others are in Vermont, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. Beyond
Food/DC set up a hotline that referred people to local food stamp offices. One
of its goals is that "an additional 500 people will be referred to appropriate
services to satisfy their food needs."
Asked how food stamp recruiting meshed with his claims that AmeriCorps
promotes self-reliance, Director Wofford replied, "A self-reliant citizen knows
what their (sic) opportunities are and figures out how to make use of those
opportunities." The key to self-reliance, in other words, is knowing the address
of the welfare office.
Federally Funded Rabble-Rousing
Federal law prohibits AmeriCorps grantees from engaging in advocacy. But as
long as an organization is not directly involved in a political campaign,
political agitation is fine and dandy with AmeriCorps headquarters.
AmeriCorps is paying for four members to work with the Political Asylum
Project of Austin, Texas. Program director Nidia Salamanca declared: "There are
a lot of immigrants who are in detention right now--we see how their rights are
being violated by police officers and by detention officers." In Washington
state, the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force uses AmeriCorps members to "organize
the Hispanic Population.... Write at least six press releases. Press releases
should include the results of needs assessment and INS reports. " If these
actions fail to incite public opinion, an AmeriCorps member will " organize
rallies as needed," according to the organization's successful grant
AmeriCorps has poured millions of dollars into organizations fighting for
rent control and federal housing subsidies. A grant to the National Association
of HUD Tenants pays for AmeriCorps members to "door knock and organize general
meetings in each selected (subsidized) development," as does a separate grant to
the Gray Panthers of Rhode Island. AmeriCorps members agitate residents to
lobby Congress; as the grant application noted, "All tenants in Section 8
(federal rental subsidies) buildings will have to make sure that Congress
provides funds each year."
AmeriCorps has provided more than $60,000 to support Equality Colorado, an
organization that describes itself as "dedicated to social change through
education, advocacy and organizing to combat violence and negative attitudes
towards GLBT (Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender) people in our society."
According to the grant application AmeriCorps approved, the federal money will
pay to "organize community building and empowering activities to the GLBT and
allied communities," among other purposes. The project appears designed in part
to recruit young people; one objective is to "develop relationships with other
area service providers who can help youth explore their sexual orientation
effectively and build a referral network of people informed about sexual
orientation issues." Equality Colorado lobbies for special legal protections for
gays, for mandatory health benefits for the partners of gay and lesbian
employees, and for equal legal status for homosexual marriages.
The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the nation's largest gay rights
organization, has received $200,000 in support from AmeriCorps. The center is a
must-stop for Democratic presidential candidates; both Al Gore and Bill Bradley
visited its headquarters within a three-day period in June 1999. Some
AmeriCorps officials were concerned about this project even before it was
launched; AmeriCorps Executive Director Deb Jospin warned in a 1997 internal
memo that "the LAGLC is a well-known advocacy organization."
The official agreement with the center claims AmeriCorps members will perform
"volunteer service to strengthen and supplement efforts to eliminate poverty and
poverty-related human, social and environmental problems." Internal files at
AmeriCorps headquarters, however, show that the project had nothing to do with
poverty. A March 31, 1999, program update from LAGLC informed AmeriCorps
headquarters that the AmeriCorps members and LAGLC staff were "focusing on
society's last 'acceptable' prejudice: anti-gay bias." The project was
summarized by one AmeriCorps member as "working to reduce the problem of
homophobia and hate violence in the LA schools and making schools safer for gay
youth, and those who are perceived to be gay."
As part of the project, AmeriCorps members distributed a survey that clearly
implied that students should report to school authorities any time they heard
any student make a derogatory comment to any other student. Gwen Baldwin,
executive director of LAGLC, stressed that the program "is really (about)
tracking and monitoring the instances of both hate crimes or anti-gay
activities." An example of anti-gay bias that Baldwin offered was "one person
not being invited to a lunch table."
AmeriCorps workers are not only concerned with children's school environment,
but have branched out into the home as well by providing more than $600,000 in
aid for the Child Victim Rapid Response Program run by Florida's Attorney
General's Office. This program sends 19 AmeriCorps recruits into schoolrooms to
lecture about child abuse and domestic violence. As its 1999 grant application
promised, "there will be an increase by 25 percent over last year in the number
of incidents of child abuse reported... as well as the number of domestic
violence incidents reported to police by the student population." Once the
accusations have been made and parents dragged into the dock, AmeriCorps helps
pay for the accusers' court costs, including the costs of a court reporter.
Asked if there is any safeguard to avoid encouraging false accusations,
program director Cynthia Rodgers responded, "No. But if you look at reports out
there, the number of false accusations are low--the criminal justice system, and
the people who interview children, is very sophisticated, and certainly much
more sophisticated than a child's mind"--this from someone in a state that was
host to some of the worst child abuse witch hunts in recent decades.
The Illiterate Leading the Illiterate
AmeriCorps has an even more surefire way to show its concern for children. It
insists it can teach them to read.
Almost half of its members teach literacy or mentor students. In his August
9, 1999 speech, Clinton congratulated AmeriCorps workers: "You have...taught
millions of children to read." One AmeriCorps official ridiculed Clinton's
claim, saying he doubted AmeriCorps had taught even a dozen children to read.
Robert Sweet, former director of the National Institute of Education, the
premier federal education research agency, observed, "AmeriCorps is not
working--and Clinton's program is still the fraud that it was in the beginning.
The whole foundation of this approach towards teaching reading is faulty."
Some AmeriCorps programs take welfare recipients off the streets and send
them into classrooms as reading tutors. Yet welfare recipients are among the
least literate groups in American society. AmeriCorps' biggest expense in
training its own members is on General Equivalency Degree (GED) preparation--
helping AmeriCorps members receive a high school degree. AmeriCorps members can
receive literacy credit for helping other members pass the GED. Derrick Max,
former chief investigator for the House Education and Workforce subcommittee on
Investigations and Oversight, recalled: "We went through and looked at the
background of people tutoring and mentoring. We found that a lot of them were
still studying for their GED--it made no sense to me. If you haven't graduated
from high school, don't send them back to mentor in the elementary school."
Energy Express, one of AmeriCorps' premier literacy programs, enrolls 600
college students to teach in West Virginia classrooms each summer. Asked how
much training they had received to teach children how to read, these instructors
seemed incredulous. AmeriCorps member Brian Farar observed: " We're not teaching
them to read--we are just exposing them (to reading) and getting them to like
it. You just want them to think they're doing a good job" when reading. "We are
trying to trick them into learning," Farar added. Children sit in cardboard
boxes or in indoor tents to do their reading. Puppet shows are a big part of the
summer, as is 15 to 20 minutes of " noncompetitive recreation" each day.
In late 1998, AmeriCorps awarded $1.2 million to the state of Mississippi to
give AmeriCorps $4,750 education awards to assistant teachers who are already on
the state government payroll. The Mississippi legislature created the assistant
teacher program in 1982 to boost literacy in Mississippi's worst schools.
However, Mississippi assistant teachers are only required to read at an
eighth-grade level. Under the grants, AmeriCorps' assistant teachers are
expected to provide an average of three hours a week of extra tutoring.
AmeriCorps effectively is paying nearly $50 an hour for tutoring by individuals
with meager reading ability. (Incidentally, enrolling state government employees
into AmeriCorps is a clear violation of federal law.)
In testimony submitted to the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1998,
Wofford claimed of one summer program: "AmeriCorps members provided support to
3,544 students and improved testing scores in mathematics, language arts,
science, and literature in all sites, 16 cities, by 63 percent to 97 percent."
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) responded, "Does that mean that school testing scores are
so low that you can improve scores essentially by 100 percent?" Shifting blame
to the grant recipient, Wofford conceded that his testimony was false. The 97
percent number actually referred to an increase in attendance at the program and
had nothing to do with academic gains.
Therapy From Bureaucrats
In the legislation creating AmeriCorps, Congress promised that the new
program would "reinvent government to eliminate duplication." So why do
AmeriCorps members often wind up acting as auxiliary government bureaucrats?
One New York City AmeriCorps project states that its top goal is to "set up
and administer programs to mobilize private sector resources to lessen the
burdens of government agencies."
In Cherryfield, Maine, an AmeriCorps recruit was put on the payroll as a
grant writer for a local resource and development council. One of his first
tasks was to solicit federal funding to pay for committee meetings on forestry
An AmeriCorps member was detailed to the Central Oregon Intergovernmental
Council in Redmon, Oregon, to "assist the city of La Pine to achieve
incorporation and...assist in identifying appropriate economic development
projects to receive lottery dollars."
Meanwhile, like government generally, AmeriCorps acts as therapist to the
citizenry. Many projects promise to "raise community awareness," "empower"
low-income citizens, and "address human needs" of targeted groups. AmeriCorps
claims its "unique" New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra Music Education Program
"helps disadvantaged preschool children develop their spatial and logic skills
through music education." AmeriCorps can take the most mundane task and describe
it as the making of a new utopia. In Moab, Utah, 32 AmeriCorps members seek to
help at-risk youth and low-income families " through a community gardening
project in order to increase participant esteem, responsibility, healthy social
skills and a service ethic." A Pawtucket, Rhode Island AmeriCorps program
promised that "80% of (children) enrolled in summer Enrichment programs will
report improved attitudes."
Let's not overlook AmeriCorps members themselves, who are expected to develop
personally and professionally during their time on the government payroll. Each
grant application must contain specific, quantifiable standards to assess
AmeriCorps members' progress. The result is a profusion of goals that look as if
they were lifted from a Dilbert cartoon:
MACE AmeriCorps members were obliged to "Give a reflection and self-
assessment." The result would be measured by "Self/diagnosis (sic) in an end-
of-year survey." As a result, each member would achieve "a 75% increase on
average in understanding about self."
The Milwaukee Community Service Corps (MCSC) concentrates on "Ethical
Training": "Using well-established curriculum from the Institute for Global
Ethics, the youth development dept at MCSC will implement a series of Ethical
Fitness workshops for corps members that will increase awareness of ethics and
develop a concept of what is ethical." The report noted: "An increase of
knowledge by at least 50% is mandatory."
That AmeriCorps program directors believe that such things can be easily
quantified raises severe doubts about their competence for any task more complex
than picking up beer cans along a highway.
Hail to Our Generous Chief
As USA Today noted, AmeriCorps' "T-shirted brigade is most well known
nationally as the youthful backdrop for White House photo ops." When President
Clinton arrived in San Francisco to speak to the American Society of Newspaper
Editors on April 15, 1999, a small army of AmeriCorps members was at the airport
to hail his arrival. When Clinton arrived in Colorado Springs to give the
commencement address at the Air Force Academy on June 3, 1999, a flock of
AmeriCorps members were on hand to greet Air Force One. AmeriCorps members get
paid for the time they spend cheering the president.
Clinton has repeatedly violated federal law by conducting campaign-style
rallies in which he urges AmeriCorps members to lobby Congress for more money
for their program or to hype specific legislative goals. In a June 3, 1998
speech to AmeriCorps members in Cleveland, Clinton urged recruits to "help me
send a loud message back to Washington, D.C., to act and act now" on his
proposed tobacco legislation. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the program's most vigilant
critic, and Rep. William Goodling wrote to President Clinton on June 24, 1998,
complaining of the illegal political content of the rally. They received no
AmeriCorps grantees have repeatedly been caught in political scandals. In San
Francisco, 40 AmeriCorps recruits devoted themselves to lobbying against
anti-crime provisions of 1994 congressional legislation. In Denver, AmeriCorps
troops distributed election leaflets attacking Hiawatha Davis, a city council
member who was blocking a government grant to the non-profit group where
AmeriCorps members worked. AmeriCorps gave over a million dollars to ACORN
(Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a radical group
involved in political action and confrontations. AmeriCorps canceled its
involvement with ACORN after revelations that federal money had been directly
used for advocacy--but AmeriCorps management made no real effort to get ACORN to
refund the ill-spent money.
A Rising Tide of Fraud
In 1994 President Clinton bragged that AmeriCorps is "the least bureaucratic,
least nationally directed program I have been associated with." If so, that's
only because the feds shovel out the money and ask few, if any, questions about
how recipients spent the windfall.
The moral smugness of many AmeriCorps officials has gone hand-in-hand with
slip-shod accounting--which produced a "target-rich environment" for fraud,
according to Inspector General Luise Jordan. In 1995, 1996, and 1997, auditors
concluded that the agency's books were "unauditable"--in such a mess that
auditors could not even attempt to render a judgment on what happened to the
billion dollars that Congress delivered to AmeriCorps in those years. While the
agency has made some progress, auditors actually found more " significant
material weaknesses" in 1998 than in 1997.
A 1998 Inspector General report found that AmeriCorps routinely used illegal
contracting methods to award contracts to its friends and favorites, especially
in the case of minority-owned firms. In other cases, the IG found that
AmeriCorps violated federal contracting law simply "because it is easier than
competitive contracting." The IG also reported in 1998: "Only 3 of 14
cooperative agreement files contained evidence of (AmeriCorps) monitoring and
oversight of grantee activities."
AmeriCorps negligence is opening the door to con artists. Bruce Smith,
director of the AmeriCorps Vision Youth Works program in Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania, was convicted in a federal court in December 1998 of defrauding
AmeriCorps members. Smith had required that every youth (most of whom were
mentally handicapped) pay him an "activity fee" of $40 in cash each time they
received their living allowances.
An Indiana AmeriCorps program was engulfed in scandal in June 1999 after the
Terre Haute Tribune-Star revealed that various high school students were given
credit toward the $4,750 AmeriCorps education award for time spent baby-
sitting, playing high school sports, going to band practice, working as a
lifeguard, and attending Sunday School.
Lax controls allow for expanded ideas on the meaning of service. The IG found
AmeriCorps members "claiming and receiving certified service hours for
inappropriate activities such as working at McDonald's to 'novel' approaches to
accruing service hours such as the 'team concept,' where everyone on a team
earns the total accumulated hours of the team for any given day, and the
'inherited service hours,' where new AmeriCorps members 'inherit' the service
hours of a departing member." Some AmeriCorps members who did not complete their
1,700 hours received prorated education awards as bribes to keep them quiet
after they threatened to publicize their dissatisfaction with AmeriCorps.
Brave New Volunteer State
If AmeriCorps helped at a barn-raising, members would later claim not just to
have helped someone build a barn--but swear they also redeemed the person's
self-esteem, gave him a purpose in life, and introduced him to multiculturalism
and diversity. One reason AmeriCorps' success claims have no more credibility
than a campaign speech is that most programs are "self- evaluated": the only
evidence for what a program achieved is what grant recipients claim. One of
AmeriCorps' technical assistance consultants formally encourages programs to
inflate the number of claimed beneficiaries: " If you feel your program affects
a broad group of individuals who may not be receiving personal services from
members...then list the whole community."
A February 2000 General Accounting Office report revealed that AmeriCorps
relies on Soviet-style accounting to gin up its achievement claims. GAO noted
AmeriCorps "generally reports the results of its programs and activities by
quantifying the amount of services AmeriCorps participants perform." Such
measurements reveal little more than the number of government employees standing
around with their hands in their pockets. GAO criticized AmeriCorps for failing
to make any effort to measure the actual impact of its members' actions. One
college graduate with the AmeriCorps National Conservation Corps program
bitterly commented in his resignation letter: "There are no new projects. Teams
are sent to the same state parks over and over again. Teams are told they are
doing work that really doesn't need to be done.... I hope that (management) can
understand that part of the reason I am leaving is because I am so committed to
AmeriCorps members often do little more than attempt to patch holes resulting
from the failures of other government programs. Public school teachers dismally
fail to teach reading; AmeriCorps members are sent in to do magic. National
parks abysmally fail to maintain their trails and other facilities; AmeriCorps
members are sent in for photo opportunities with shovels and picks. Public
housing projects continue deteriorating, AmeriCorps members are sent in with
According to President Clinton, "every young AmeriCorps volunteer...
typically will generate 12 more volunteers helping on whatever the service is. "
Clinton and other defenders claim that AmeriCorps is a big success because
recruits "leveraged" their efforts by persuading other people to volunteer more
hours of charity work. These claims are nonsense. A study by Independent Sector,
a coalition of voluntary organizations, found that AmeriCorps members were
actually responsible for only a "3.5 percent increase in hours volunteered by
More than 93 million Americans work as unpaid volunteers each year. At best,
AmeriCorps' 50,000 members amount to less than one-twentieth of 1 percent of all
the volunteers in America. But AmeriCorps is work that is politically blessed
and thus far more meaningful than mere private sector work.
Wofford bragged in 1999: "The evidence shows that (AmeriCorps) has instilled
an ethic of continuing service in the members." But it is difficult to
distinguish the AmeriCorps Alumni Association from any other Washington lobby.
The association recently announced: "Feedback over the past two years indicates
that the most pressing issue on the minds of AmeriCorps alumni is the taxation
of the education award." Now it is lobbying to convert the education award into
a tax-free benefit. Vollie Melson, the association's executive director,
observed, "A lot of people are frustrated with the tax because they feel they're
serving their country."
In the future, all high school students could be forced to "serve their
country" the AmeriCorps way; many of the program's supporters hope that
AmeriCorps will be a stepping stone to laws compelling all young Americans to
surrender their time in government-approved "service" activities. While in the
Senate, Wofford championed legislation to give federal grants to high schools
that imposed compulsory service on all students. In an interview, Wofford talked
about how AmeriCorps could provide its members with the "moral equivalent of
war"--the supposed moral stimulus that occurs from subjugation to some higher
collective goal. (In his speeches Wofford often mentions his own
character-building experience in the Army Air Corps in World War II--but
neglects to mention he never saw combat, as chief flack Tara Murphy concedes.)
Rising Democratic star Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's lieutenant
governor, backed a law that imposed compulsory service on high school students
in her state. She praised Clinton at a February 1999 AmeriCorps pep rally: "You
call out the best in our citizens. You remind Americans of the good that
politics and education can accomplish." Babble like this has gotten Townsend
mentioned as a possible Gore running mate--a prospect which could ensure that
AmeriCorps continues squandering hundreds of millions of dollars a year for many
years to come.