The September 11 terrorist attacks have given new life and vitality to almost all preexisting boondoggles in Washington. Even AmeriCorps--Clinton's national service charade--is on the verge of getting fresh dollars.
Sen. John McCain is leading a push to greatly expand the program from 50,000 to 250,000 members a year. McCain says AmeriCorps members "have begun to glimpse the glory of serving the cause of freedom." In this case, the freedom will consist of collecting a paycheck while rarely being required to break a sweat.
McCain sees a bigger AmeriCorps as a cure for both "a deeper spiritual crisis within our national culture" and "increased cynicism about our governmental institutions." Washington Post columnist David Broder, the titular head of the Washington media establishment, hails McCain's proposal as a "great feat of statesmanship" and turning "catastrophe into opportunity." Yet many AmeriCorps projects directly foment cynicism among taxpayers.
In Mississippi, AmeriCorps members have gone door to door to recruit people for food stamps. In New Jersey, AmeriCorps members are recruiting middle-class families to accept subsidized federal health insurance for their children. In Washington state, AmeriCorps bankrolled the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition. AmeriCorps is paying housing activists who pressure Congress to perpetuate federal subsidies for renters.
"Passing the laugh test" is not a requirement for AmeriCorps grantees. In Buffalo, N.Y., AmeriCorps members helped run a program that gave children $5 for each toy gun they brought in. In Lone Pine, Calif., AmeriCorps members put on a puppet show to warn four-year-olds of the dangers of earthquakes. Elsewhere in California, AmeriCorps members busied themselves foisting unreliable "ultra-low-flush toilets" on poor people.
Expanding AmeriCorps could be difficult because many AmeriCorps program already are unable to attract enough recruits to fill available slots. In Mississippi, state government employees are counted as AmeriCorps members as long as they wear AmeriCorps hats and T-shirts and promise to spend a few hours' extra time each week tutoring kids. (The inspector general examined this program and raised doubts about its legality; AmeriCorps management dismissed the IG report and continues using employees of other government agencies to pad its own numbers.)
McCain's delusionary bombast about AmeriCorps is matched by the Bush appointee who now runs the program, Leslie Lenkowsky. Lenkowsky is salivating over the prospect of an expanded program, telling staff in a recent memo: "This is a new position for [AmeriCorps] and it allows us the freedom to take the offensive to expand service opportunities and help strengthen the character of our communities." From Lenkowsky's perspective, the more people that become government employees, the stronger American communities will be.
Lenkowsky told AmeriCorps recruits last month that their "daily duties" will be "helping to thwart terrorism itself. . . . Terrorists sow the seeds of distrust. You sow the seeds of trust, at a time your nation badly needs them." Perhaps Lenkowsky believes that nothing would intimidate Al Qaeda more than a doubling in the number of puppet shows performed in America. Or perhaps he believes that Americans are overwhelmed with a rush of pride each time they see some young person wearing a government-issued AmeriCorps hat and T-shirt--regardless of whether that person is leaning on a rake or otherwise daydreaming.
Both McCain and Lenkowsky are far more enthusiastic about swelling AmeriCorps than about fixing the program's glaring faults. Most AmeriCorps spending is handled by federally funded state commissions. Inspector general reports revealed that some state commissions are so slipshod and negligent that they appear to be little more than pass-through operations to launder federal money to local recipients.
When Lenkowsky was a member of the board of directors overseeing AmeriCorps in 1999, he made comments at a public board meeting that indicated he had little or no familiarity with the inspector general reports on AmeriCorps problems--reports which he, as a board member, is regularly sent.
AmeriCorps is little more than social work tinged with messianic delusions. Citizens should no longer be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes each year for a bunch of photo opportunities for politicians and do-gooders. The endless repetition of the phrase "national service" is no substitute for people producing sufficient value to voluntarily earn a good wage.