April 24, 1997

April 24, 1997 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED042497b: Boost Volunteerism: End Americorps

Independence Hall in Philadelphia offered a picturesque backdrop for The Presidents' Summit for America's Future, convened by Presidents Clinton and Bush and chaired by Gen. Colin Powell. While much was said in praise of America's tradition of volunteerism, the summit would have done better to focus on the damage that has been done to that tradition by Washington since the 1930s and '40s.

Since President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal used the federal government to usurp the traditional role of voluntary institutions, particularly in the social service area, the tradition of caring for the poor and needy in our own neighborhoods -- and of taking responsibility for them -- has deteriorated almost to the vanishing point.

One program contributing to this deterioration is President Clinton's showcase program for promoting youth volunteerism, AmeriCorps. As if to illustrate the degree to which the spirit of community service is dying in this country, AmeriCorps pays its volunteers. This is the opposite of volunteerism. The irony of the volunteer summit was that one of the major organizations behind it -- the Corporation for National Service -- is the $400 million federally funded agency that oversees and pays for AmeriCorps. Instead of praising AmeriCorps, summit attendees should have denounced it.

AmeriCorps is the largest extension of the federal government in recent years -- and the biggest federally funded program to "promote volunteerism" since the days of the New Deal. But AmeriCorps has proven to be a failure even on its own terms. AmeriCorps grants federal funds to various organizations that, in turn, pay "volunteers" a stipend; at the completion of their service, full-time participants are also eligible for a $4,725 voucher for educational expenses. When AmeriCorps was created, Congress was assured that cost per "volunteer" would be under $18,000, that federal funds would leverage many times their value in private donations, that the program would be a cost-effective way to help young people pay for college, and that 80 percent of participants would complete the program.

Instead, the program has become a case study as to why government should stay out of the voluntary sector.

A July 1995 audit by the government's accounting arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO), showed that the average cost per AmeriCorps member ran from $26,000 to $32,000 -- nearly double the expected cost. Although a second GAO audit of a sampling of 24 AmeriCorps projects, completed in February 1997, did not seek to determine average cost per participant, it did find some equally disturbing trends:

* Nearly 40 percent of AmeriCorps' paid volunteers in GAO's sample dropped out of the program;

* AmeriCorps has failed to generate significant private-sector support. Instead, 83 percent of funding for the projects GAO examined came directly from the taxpayers;

* Barely half of those who completed the programs sampled used their educational awards. Although these numbers will certainly increase over the seven years that the awards can be redeemed, in some programs as few as 18 percent of the education awards were used. This fact leads some critics to wonder whether AmeriCorps has become merely another expensive federal jobs program;

* One AmeriCorps project, the Casa Verde Builders, cost more than $100,000 per "volunteer" who completed the program. Other audited programs showed similar waste.

The independent accounting firm Arthur Andersen has twice examined AmeriCorps books, finding them to be unauditable and incomplete -- grounds for criminal prosecution in the private sector. Most disturbing, a follow-up study concluded that the program could not account for $38 million in federal funding.

Even a study of the program for the Independent Sector, a group that supports AmeriCorps, found that the presence of AmeriCorps members created only a "3.5 percent increase in hours volunteered by genuine volunteers."

Yet, despite this record of mismanagement, President Clinton wants to increase spending for AmeriCorps to $546.5 million next year -- a figure equal to the amount of money the government receives in taxes from more than 2.5 million average working families. According to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, "It's an outrage that the president proposes to increase spending for this program, which can't even pass an audit."

In short, AmeriCorps is neither an effective means for promoting volunteerism nor a cost-effective means to help families pay for college. It's time to end this expensive boondoggle. If Congress and the Clinton administration truly want to promote volunteerism in America, they should work to end AmeriCorps.

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Note: Kenneth R. Weinstein is former director of the Government Reform Project and August Stofferahn is a former research assistant at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.