Americorps: Six years of waste and fraud

By James Bovard
web posted October 9, 2000

President Clinton is seeking to use AmeriCorps, his national service program, as the cornerstone of his presidential legacy. At last August's National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, he boasted that "we created AmeriCorps, which already has given more than 150,000 of our young people a chance to earn some money for college by serving our communities." [1] In a speech last year, Clinton appealed for support to expand AmeriCorps "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." [2]

AmeriCorps is at the heart of Clinton's effort to portray government employees as morally superior to everyone else in America—and to portray himself as a great moral visionary. At the same time, he is trying to politically co-opt volunteerism based on the false presumption that the voluntary sector is in trouble and that the federal government needs to ride in on a white horse and save the day.

As this article shows, AmeriCorps' defenders continually exaggerate its accomplishments. If AmeriCorps helped at a barn-raising, proponents would claim not only to have built a barn but would swear that they had also redeemed the owner's self-esteem, gave him a purpose in life, and made him aware of the value of multiculturalism and diversity. In reality, however, AmeriCorps is a huge boondoggle:

  • In Indianapolis, AmeriCorps recruits busied themselves painting a giant mural on the side of a pawnshop.
  • In Delaware, AmeriCorps members are recruiting women for the Women, Infants and Children welfare program and even driving them to welfare offices.
  • In Virginia Beach, recruits helped the city double the size of an outreach program that signs people up for housing subsidies. They also "busied" themselves by organizing neighborhood parties.

A Fiasco from the Start

Beginning with 20,000 recruits in 1994, AmeriCorps by 1999 had 50,000 paid "volunteers" on its payroll, many of whom worked only part-time. Almost half have quit the program before completing their term of service. Despite this fact, Clinton in his final budget proposed to double AmeriCorps to 100,000 members by 2004 and increase its budget from $433 million to $533 million. [3]

Anyone age 17 or older can join AmeriCorps. 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 welfare, and the money they collect from AmeriCorps (unlike that from a private-sector job) does not affect how much they receive in food stamps or housing subsidies. Because many recruits are relatively 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 annually—the equivalent of almost $12 an hour for minimum-wage tasks!

Taxpayer-Funded Rabble-rousing

President Clinton declared in 1994 that he looked forward to AmeriCorps members "revolutionizing life at the grassroots level." [4] In a sense they have, since some AmeriCorps projects are essentially political rabble-rousing. In theory, federal law prohibits an AmeriCorps grantee from engaging in advocacy. But so long as the organization is not directly involved in a political campaign, advocating more government is fine and dandy with AmeriCorps headquarters:

  • AmeriCorps is paying four members to work with the Political Asylum Project of Austin, Texas. Program director Nidia Salamanca remarks, "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. We document INS encounters with immigrants—if they are respecting their rights." [5]
  • AmeriCorps has supported the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force in Washington state by having recruits "organize the Hispanic Population . . . to develop a program of monitoring, reporting and stopping INS abuses for use by the Hispanic population." [6] The organization urges, "Write at least six press releases. Press releases should include the results of needs assessment and INS reports." And in case this is not enough to incite public opinion, member are told to "organize rallies as needed."
  • AmeriCorps has poured millions of dollars into organizations that fight for rent control and more federal housing subsidies. A recent grant to the National Association of HUD Tenants pays AmeriCorps members to "door knock and organize general meetings in each selected [i.e., subsidized] development," [7] as does another grant to the Gray Panthers of Rhode Island. Recruits also agitate residents to lobby Congress. As the Panthers grant application noted, "All tenants in Section 8 buildings will have to make sure that Congress provides funds each year." The application also states that the Panthers seek to help residents "increase tenant collective bargaining strength and access with HUD and other agencies." [8] Unfortunately, by supporting rent control, AmeriCorps-aided groups have buttressed government policies that create artificial housing shortages that harm millions of Americans.

Playing Police Officer

AmeriCorps has provided more than $600,000 to the Florida's Attorney General's Child Victim Rapid Response Program. The program sends 19 AmeriCorps recruits into schoolrooms to lecture on child abuse and domestic violence. Its 1999 grant application promised that as a result of the program, "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." [9] The application also set to increase by 25 percent the number of students and families "served" with emergency injunctions and child custody orders as a result of AmeriCorps activism.

Once allegations have been made and parents dragged into the dock, AmeriCorps helps pay the accusers' court costs, including the cost of a court reporter. I asked program director Cynthia Rodgers and if there were any safeguards to avoid encouraging false accusations. She responded bluntly, "No. But if you look at reports out there, the number of false accusations is low. The criminal justice system—the people who interview children—are very sophisticated, and certainly much more sophisticated than a child's mind." [10]

However, false child abuse accusations have become a national scandal in recent years. Florida in particular has been the site of some of the worst child-abuse witch hunts in recent decades, including false accusations in a case spearheaded by then-State Attorney Janet Reno and based on a bevy of absurd allegations coerced by psychiatrists out of young children. When asked how many of the charges of child abuse resulting from AmeriCorps activism were "sustained" (i.e., found to be true), Rodgers replied, "We would not even address that." [11] This implies that simply increasing the number of child-abuse accusations is in the public interest, regardless of whether the charges are valid.

Flush Follies

In southern California, 37 AmeriCorps recruits recently helped the EPA implement new regulations that forcibly reduce the amount of water people can use in their homes. They busied themselves by distributing "ultra-low-flush toilets" and low-flow shower devices to low-income people. The devices have spawned a tidal wave of protest on Capitol Hill. According to the National Association of Home Builders, three-fourth of its members have complained that the new federally mandated low-flush toilets are more prone to clogging and other problems. Ben Lieberman, a lawyer and regulatory expert with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, observes, "People complain about having to flush the new toilets twice. [They] do not work nearly as well. Some new models are unbelievably noisy." [12]

Not surprisingly, the new federal toilet mandates have also created a black market for older toilets. AmeriCorps members helped "solve" this problem by rounding up and crushing older, more reliable toilets. The new shower heads, required under a "federal dribble mandate," likewise severely restrict the amount of running water and increase shower time.

Food Stamp Recruitment

The Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE) program, which has been on the AmeriCorps gravy train since 1994, promised in its 1999 grant application that AmeriCorps members would "conduct door-to-door canvassing to identify potential food stamp recipients" and also provide "assistance . . . in completing necessary applications for food stamps." The goal of the program was to enroll "75% of surveyed rural Mississippi residents who are eligible for food stamps, but are not receiving them." [13] Many people refuse to accept food stamps out of pride. Some studies show that food stamps have little or no impact on the quality of a recipient's diet, or result in increased consumption of meat, sugar, and fat—hardly a blessing considering the obesity epidemic and rising diabetes levels among low-income Americans.

MACE headquarters is in Greenville, Mississippi, the heart of the Mississippi Delta and one of the poorest regions in America. When I arrived there, I was surprised to find that it was one of the fanciest buildings in town. The plush leather chairs in the waiting room were in stark contrast to the shabbiness of the neighborhood. Uncle Sam has obviously been good to MACE, which has received money from several federal programs over the years.

When I asked MACE director Fanny Woods what her AmeriCorps program was doing, she ironically repeated the old saying, "if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; but if you teach him how to fish, he can feed himself for his entire life." [14] When asked about MACE's involvement in food stamp recruitment, Woods initially indicated that the program did little or nothing in that area. I quoted a statement from MACE's website that mentioned food stamp recruitment. She then admitted that MACE informed some people about food stamps but emphatically stated that it would be illegal for AmeriCorps members to directly advocate that people go on food stamps. I then mentioned that I had read that AmeriCorps members were going door-to-door to tell people about food stamps. Again, Woods conceded that AmeriCorps members drove people to food stamp offices, but she added that it would be illegal for them to go inside, as if that mattered.

Ironically, at the same time that AmeriCorps members are boosting food stamp rolls, local governments in the Delta are bragging that new gambling casinos have created an economic mini-boom, allowing thousands of residents to find work and leave welfare.

MACE is only one of four AmeriCorps' "Beyond Food" programs designed to boost food aid. The others are in Vermont, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. Beyond Food / DC recently set up a hotline to refer 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."

The Congressional Hunger Center (CHC), the lead grantee for Beyond Food, exemplifies AmeriCorps' "humility." Its 1999 grant application states, "Beyond Food / DC exists to fight hunger by developing leaders. . . . Our members . . . learn in a ‘Capital' environment where some of our nation's greatest humanitarian experts work." [15] CHC's website proclaims that "advocacy" is one of its key tasks and provides links to the congressional websites of Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the CHC co-chairmen. [16]

I recently asked AmeriCorps chief Harris Wofford how food stamp recruitment meshed with his statements that AmeriCorps promotes self-reliance. Wofford replied, "A self-reliant citizen knows what their [sic] opportunities are and figures out how to make use of those opportunities." [17] Apparently, the key to self-reliance is knowing the address of the local welfare office.

Literacy Lies

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but promising to teach children to read is the last refuge of a federal boondoggle. AmeriCorps is a flag bearer in Clinton's literacy crusade. Almost half of AmeriCorps' members are involved in literacy or mentoring. In an August 9, 1999 speech, Clinton congratulated AmeriCorps members while boasting, "You have . . . taught millions of children to read." [18]

One AmeriCorps official recently ridiculed this claim and expressed doubt that AmeriCorps members had taught even a dozen children to read, a tremendous indictment given the number of AmeriCorps recruits in this area. Robert Sweet, the 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." [19]

Like Clinton, AmeriCorps' Wofford bragged in 1998 congressional testimony that AmeriCorps had set a goal for itself of "effective education and literacy for every child." [20] While the proclamation made for good public relations, the vast majority of AmeriCorps recruits simply have no experience or competence in teaching. Some AmeriCorps literacy programs rely on poorly educated welfare recipients. In fact, the largest single item in the AmeriCorps training budget is for General Equivalency Degree (GED) preparation. Derrick Max, the former chief investigator for the House Education and Workforce subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, recently stated, "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." [21] Robert Sweet observed, "If trained professional teachers who have spent four-plus years at a university cannot teach kids how to read, then why do we think that a week's training session for some college kid or welfare recipient is going to help kids learn how to read?" [22]

I visited one of the premier AmeriCorps literacy programs, the Energy Express program in Ransom, West Virginia, which enrolls 600 college students to staff public school classrooms for kids during the summer. I asked several AmeriCorps members how much training they had received. Each one looked at me as if I were off my rocker. Member Brian Farar observed, "We're not teaching them to read, we are just exposing them and getting them to like it. You just want them to think they're doing a good job." Incredibly, AmeriCorps members are told not to correct children's grammar. Farar added, "We are trying to trick them into learning." [23] The children in the program sat in cardboard boxes or tents while "reading." In fact, puppet shows, not reading, were a big part of the summer, as was 15 to 20 minutes of politically correct "noncompetitive recreation" each day.

Some AmeriCorps literacy programs are particularly outrageous. In late 1998, AmeriCorps awarded $1.2 million to the state of Mississippi to give $4,750 education awards to assistant teachers already on the state payroll. Significantly, the state's grant application was full of grammatical errors. The Mississippi legislature had created the program in 1982 to boost literacy in Mississippi's worst schools. However, state assistant teachers are only required to read at an eighth-grade level. The primary requirement is simply to provide an average of three extra hours of tutoring each week. Thus, AmeriCorps is effectively paying nearly $50 an hour for individuals with meager reading ability to tutor. In fact, enrolling state government employees in AmeriCorps programs is a clear violation of federal law. But it provides AmeriCorps with more bragging opportunities.

The Mississippi program is not the only one to have received money for less-than-qualified tutors. The Rockin' Magicians Sports Association, a Harlem-based program, likewise submitted an error-laden application that would have guaranteed a flunking in any high school English class.

According to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), "Literacy AmeriCorps has been very successful in my home state in doing things like setting up talk times for people with limited English proficiency to talk with one another in English." [24] Since when is it necessary to use taxpayer funds to encourage immigrants to talk to each other? Perhaps Congress will next decide that no Americans will play checkers with one another unless a new federal agency is created to distribute free checkers boards.

AmeriCorps' literacy program is not a band-aid to cover the failure of government schools. Instead, it is a photo opportunity of a facade of a band-aid. It is based on perfect Clintonite logic: there is a need; there are people who care; there is taxpayer money. Voila! Problem solved." At best, AmeriCorps is similar to Title I federally subsidized teachers aides for the nation's poorest school districts—a program the General Accounting Office recently concluded has failed to boost student achievement. [25] Even if a handful of students learn something in the short-run from AmeriCorps "reading"-playing-and-back-slapping, it is likely lost when they return to dismal public schools.

And Then There's Fraud

Aside from tremendous waste, AmeriCorps have suffered from widespread fraud in its programs. One scandal after another has arisen, from cases of members receiving credit for working at McDonald's to members being allowed to count other member's work as their own to members getting awards for doing nothing at all. [26]

Typical of the Clinton Administration, AmeriCorps officials have a good excuse for everything. When Inspector General Luise Jordan informed AmeriCorps' management that many grantees had engaged in pervasive violations of federal law and regulations, AmeriCorps headquarters denied any responsibility. [27] Harris Wofford replied, "the Corporation has no direct contractual relationship with operating or placement sites. Accordingly, the Corporation's efforts are focused on strengthening state commission and parent organizations so that they conduct proper training and oversight at the local level." [28] Jordan retorted, "The lack of a direct contractual relationship does not relieve the Corporation of its responsibility as the Federal agency providing AmeriCorps funding to establish effective controls over compliance with laws and regulations related to the program." [29]

Jordan also recently began reviewing the operations of the state commissions that directly administer AmeriCorps programs. The audit reports quickly turned up cases of states that lacked open and competitive grant processes, states that made little or no effort to monitor and evaluate grantees, and a general lack of financial controls. Some AmeriCorps state commissions seem to be little more than pass-through operations that launder federal money to local recipients.

Drive-By Salvation

Most AmeriCorps success claims have no more credibility than a political campaign speech. This is because the vast majority of AmeriCorps programs are "self-evaluated": the only evidence AmeriCorps has of what a program achieved is what a grant recipient claims. Moreover, one of AmeriCorps technical assistance consultants actually encourages grantees 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." [30] Incredibly, the southern Californian toilet project claimed to have benefited a whopping 30 million people—almost the entire population of California!

A February 2000 General Accounting Office report revealed that AmeriCorps relies on Soviet-style accounting to gin up its achievement claims. GAO noted that AmeriCorps "generally reports the results of its programs and activities by quantifying the amount of services AmeriCorps participants perform. . . . Although [AmeriCorps] has enumerated and characterized a number of positive program activities, counting them does not fully measure program results or outcomes as required by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1994." [31] In other words, the fact that X number of bodies appeared for X number of hours at X number of work sites does not prove that AmeriCorps has achieved anything more grandiose than boosting 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.

According to President Clinton, "every young AmeriCorps volunteer . . . typically will generate 12 more volunteers helping on whatever the service is." [32] In fact, Clinton and other defenders claim that AmeriCorps is a huge success because recruits "leverage" their efforts by persuading other people to volunteer who otherwise would not. This makes the entire program smell like a con, as though the feds are paying some people to hustle others to work for free. At best, this is the Tom Sawyer "pay me to paint my fence" model of virtue.

In any case, AmeriCorps' claim of being a miraculous generator of volunteers is simply false. A recent study by Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporations, found that AmeriCorps members were actually responsible for only a "3.5 percent increase in hours volunteered by genuine volunteers." [33] This is because AmeriCorps uses statistical bait-and-switch to inflate its claims. Its reporting forms ask program managers about both new and existing volunteers "supervised" by AmeriCorps members. Thus, if an AmeriCorps volunteer shows up at a Habitat for Humanity home-building project and pretends to supervise 30 people, this counts as 30 new volunteers generated by AmeriCorps. Politicians can then claim credit for this miracle.

In fact, more than 93 million Americans work as unpaid volunteers annually. At best, AmeriCorps' 40,000 members account for less than one-twentieth of a percent of the nation's volunteers. And in fact, AmeriCorps members often do little more than attempt to patch holes resulting from failed government programs. Public school teachers dismally fail to teach reading; AmeriCorps members are sent in to work their magic. National parks abysmally fail to maintain their trails and other facilities (despite one budget increase after another); AmeriCorps members arrive with shovels and picks for photo opportunities. Public housing projects continue to deteriorate, in large part because residents have no incentive not to trash them; AmeriCorps members are sent in armed with paint brushes.

Stealing the Limelight

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), AmeriCorps' most vigilant critic, has observed, "What the president has done is created a national identity for AmeriCorps that in some ways competes with . . . other charitable organizations." [34] Some AmeriCorps recruits do in fact work with well-known and respectable charities such as the Boy Scouts and Red Cross. Members assisted in the July 1999 World Special Olympics in Raleigh, North Carolina. But these are organizations and events established long before the first AmeriCorps member arrived on their doorstep. Moreover, AmeriCorps defenders talk as if the program were a good thing in and of itself. They forget that the federal government must tax Americans to pay for this bogus volunteer program, leaving citizens with fewer resources to fund charities privately.

Many AmeriCorps supporters hope that the program will be a stepping stone to laws that compel all young Americans to surrender their time in government-approved "service" activities. While in the Senate, Harris Wofford championed legislation to give federal grants to high schools that imposed compulsory service on students. The motivation for such a mandate seems to spring from collectivist ideals. In a recent interview, Wofford talked about how AmeriCorps could provide its members with the "moral equivalent of war"—the supposed moral stimulus that occurs under subjugation to a higher collective goal. [35]

In summary, AmeriCorps is little more than inept social work tinged with messianic delusions. It appears special only because it is "politically blessed" by politicians who seem to believe that work funded by taxation is more meaningful than work paid for voluntarily. At best, AmeriCorps allows politicians to claim credit for good deeds that citizens would have performed even if AmeriCorps never existed. At worst, it pulls nonprofits into the government orbit and sows the seeds of bureaucratization and politicization. As Doug Bandow, former special assistant to President Reagan, has remarked, "By paying a handful of young kids and claiming they are ‘volunteers,' AmeriCorps may be undermining and squeezing out real volunteers." [31]

James Bovard is the author of Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power Under Clinton-Gore, St. Martin's Press, September 2000. Reprinted with the kind permission of the Capital Research Centre.

Notes

1. America 2000: The Democratic National Convention, website: www.dems2000.com.
2. "Remarks at "AmeriCorps Call to Service," Public Papers of the Presidents, February 10, 1999, p. 220 (College Park, Maryland).
3. The House Appropriations Committee voted to end all AmeriCorps funding, but the Senate is more supportive. In the past, House and Senate differences over AmeriCorps appropriations have almost always been resolved by the caving in of House negotiators.
4. "Remarks at the Presidential Scholars Awards Presentation Ceremony," Public Papers of the Presidents, July 1, 1994, p. 1397.
5. Author interview with Nidia Salamanca, July 23, 1999.
6. "Memorandum of Agreement between the Opportunity Council, Bellingham, WA, and Corporation for National and Community Service," May 13, 1999. Included in the agreement was the AmeriCorps application for the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, dated October 8, 1998.
7. Grant application to AmeriCorps from the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, Boston, February 17, 1999.
8. Grant application to AmeriCorps from the Gray Panthers of Rhode Island, February 25, 1999.
9. Grant application to AmeriCorps from the Child Victim Rapid Response Program, Florida Office of the Attorney General, April 1, 1998.
10. Author interview with Cynthia Rodgers, August 13, 1999.
11. Ibid.
12. Ben Lieberman, "Federal Nannies Render Appliances Less Effective," Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 20, 1998.
13. Grant application to AmeriCorps from the Congressional Hunger Center, Washington, D.C., March 11, 1999. There was a separate section in the application for each of the four different projects.
14. Author interview with Fanny Woods, August 4, 1999.
15. Grant application to AmeriCorps from the Congressional Hunger Center.
16. See www.ghn.org/chc/.
17. Author interview with Harris Wofford, September 15, 1999.
18. "Remarks at the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps Graduation Ceremony," Public Papers of the Presidents, August 9, 1999, p. 1597.
19. Author interview with Robert Sweet, August 10, 1999.
20. Hearing on the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development and the Independent Agencies appropriations, fiscal year 1998, H.R. 2158 / S. 1034, Senate Appropriations Committee, March 4, 1997 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1997), p. 87.
21. Author interview with Derrick Max, October 3, 1999.
22. Author interview with Robert Sweet, August 10, 1999.
23. Author interview with Brian Farar, July 22, 1999.
24. Congressional Record, July 22, 1997, p. 7833.
25. "Testimony of Carlotta C. Joyner, director, Education and Employment Issues, General Accounting Office, "Senate Budget Committee Hearing on Federal Pre-College Education Programs," Federal Document Clearing House Congressional Testimony, November 6, 1997.
26. "Assessment of AmeriCorps Service Hour Reporting," Corporation for National Service, Office of the Inspector General, Report # 98-19, June 19, 1998.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid.
30. Information provided by a Washington, D.C. expert on AmeriCorps who wished to remain anonymous.
31. U.S. General Accounting Office, "National Service Programs: Two AmeriCorps Programs' Funding and Benefits," February 2000.
32. "Remarks to the City Year Convention in Cleveland, Ohio," Public Papers of the Presidents, June 3, 1998, p. 1027.
33. John Messer, "Disparities between National Service Outcome Measures and Goals: Core Susquehanna AmeriCorps: A Case Study," Independent Sector, 1997 Working Papers, p. 323.
34. Author interview with Peter Hoekstra, August 12, 1999.
35. Author interview with Harris Wofford, September 15, 1999. In almost every speech he makes, Wofford mentions his own character-building experience in the Army Air Corps during World War II, but he never mentions publicly that he never saw any combat.
35. Author interview with Doug Bandow, August 17, 1999.

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