AmeriCorps: Still a Bad Idea for Citizen Service

Report Civil Society

AmeriCorps: Still a Bad Idea for Citizen Service

June 28, 2002 9 min read

Authors: Krista Kafer and Matthew Spalding

Since September 11, policymakers across the political spectrum have recognized anew the importance of citizen engagement and philanthropic volunteerism to a thriving civil society. The possibility of building "a new culture of responsibility" undergirds President George W. Bush's challenge, in his recent State of the Union Address, to each American to commit 4,000 hours to serving one's neighbors and nation.

President Bill Clinton sought to capture this spirit by creating AmeriCorps, a controversial program that President Bush would like to reform and expand as part of a greater and more promising effort to promote service and citizenship. Despite good intentions and several improvements, AmeriCorps remains a deeply flawed program that hinders rather than advances the President's larger goals. Far from encouraging the personal responsibility and independent citizenship proper to American self-government and a vibrant volunteer sector, AmeriCorps promotes a government-centered idea of social service.

Rather than increase its size and boost its funding, as the Citizen Service Act of 2002 (H.R. 4854) would do, Congress should reorganize AmeriCorps as a volunteer initiative--similar to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports--that would promote volunteerism and provide a clearinghouse to identify and bring volunteers together with the service opportunities of their choice. Rather than expanding taxpayer-paid "volunteer" opportunities, Congress should focus instead on proposals like the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act (S. 1924) that would boost true volunteerism and charitable giving.1

Misguided Compassion?

Since its creation in 1993 as part of the National and Community Service Trust Act, AmeriCorps has been plagued with problems. Participants who sought its help to meet the costs of college education in exchange for community service were assigned initially to federal agencies and departments, and grants were used to subsidize political advocacy and activities. AmeriCorps could not retain participants, was unable to attract private-sector funding, and quickly looked like another federal jobs program. Several independent audits of the program pointed out mismanagement and serious cost overruns, with the real cost per participant considerably higher than advertised.2

The Bush Administration has corrected many of the problems in Clinton's AmeriCorps program: The program is run more efficiently (it has passed its last two audits), and there is more accountability in its activities. The Administration would now like to make some additional reforms in AmeriCorps and increase the size of the program from 50,000 to 75,000 participants.

In support of the Administration's plan, the Citizen Service Act was introduced to reauthorize for five years the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which oversees AmeriCorps, and to increase funding for the program from $240.5 million (in fiscal year 2002) to $315 million. As before, federal funds are allocated to state governments or distributed directly by the CNCS to support various service activities focused primarily on education, public safety, human, and environmental needs. For a full 1,700-hour term of service (over 10 to 12 months), participants would now receive an educational grant of $5,250 and a stipend of at least $9,600, health insurance, and (in some cases) money for child care and relocation.

H.R. 4854 does make several additional improvements in AmeriCorps. It would prohibit national service grants from going to federal agencies and non-AmeriCorps federal funds from being used to meet AmeriCorps' matching requirements. It also wisely requires recipients to certify that participants who serve as tutors have, or are on track to obtain, a high school diploma and that literacy programs are rooted in scientifically based research and the essential components of reading instruction defined in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

There are several aspects of the proposed legislation, however, that cause concern:

  • H.R. 4854 would shift more monies from the national to the state level, which would have the good effect of de-emphasizing large national organizations in favor of state-recognized charitable groups and nonprofit organizations, but it does not prohibit local and state government entities (or advocacy groups) from receiving national service grants. A relative shift of monies from one level of government to another does not make the program less administrative and more voluntary.
  • H.R. 4854 mandates the establishment of requirements for the promotion of citizenship consistent with Immigration and Naturalization Service programs. Any oath given under the national service laws must be consistent with the federal oath of office to support the U.S. Constitution. AmeriCorps participants should know at least as much as new immigrants do about citizenship, but this requirement will be of little consequence if the civic education aspect is badly designed--as it is in the pilot programs under consideration--or lost in the emphasis of service over citizenship.
  • H.R. 4854 would allow AmeriCorps participants to continue teaching sex education. Although such programs must not encourage sexual activity or distribute contraceptives and must include discussion of the health benefits of abstinence and risks of condom use, a better idea would be to prohibit such federally funded activity by AmeriCorps participants altogether. Likewise, AmeriCorps participants should be prohibited from working for programs that promote abortion or refer individuals to abortion providers. The Delaware chapter of Planned Parenthood, for instance, currently advertises its AmeriCorps grant for 20 participants "to provide human sexuality education and referrals for services to teens and their parents."3
  • H.R. 4854 does not provide added protections for faith-based groups involved in community service. Despite a general intent to promote their participation without undermining their religious grounding, faith-based groups are given notice, and must acknowledge in writing, that they will be subject to "anti-discriminatory" hiring policies and are not protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which grants exemptions for religious groups. Although it may not create serious practical difficulties for AmeriCorps participants, this provision makes things more complicated and unfriendly for faith-based groups and sets a disturbing precedent for other programs.

The Wrong Way to Promote Service

Despite the various changes that have been made in the program, the real question has to do with the philosophy and method behind AmeriCorps. The argument on behalf of the new AmeriCorps is that it is not a jobs program but a managerial program, which is needed to provide the infrastructure necessary to leverage volunteers who otherwise would have no service opportunities.

But this argument overlooks how the program actually works. An emphasis on the potential fruits of the program does not change the basic fact at its core: Individuals are paid by the federal Treasury to "volunteer" for government-approved service programs. As with the old AmeriCorps, so with the new, and therein lies the fundamental problem.

The great social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville observed that one of the great virtues of American society is its tendency to create local voluntary associations to meet the most important needs of society. In other nations, these needs were handled through and by government; but in the United States, private individuals of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions formed associations. "I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men, and in getting them voluntarily to pursue it," Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. "What political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which American citizens perform every day, with the assistance of the principle of association?" he asked. "The more [government] stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance."4

Last year, according to Independent Sector and the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, 83.9 million adults volunteered time to a formal charity organization and 89 percent of American households gave a total of $177.05 billion to charity.5 In 2001, the Knights of Columbus alone raised and distributed $125.6 million (half the AmeriCorps budget) and volunteered 58 million hours of service (almost 90 percent of AmeriCorps participants' service time).6 The depth of private American charity and the vast potential to expand these great activities ought to be constantly noted and strongly encouraged.

AmeriCorps does not encourage sacrificial giving of time and resources, which has the character-forming effect of teaching about our compassionate responsibility to help fellow citizens. Instead, it tells a new generation that "volunteerism" could just as well mean a paid job with benefits. Such government-paid and directed "volunteerism"--by encouraging individuals and associations to look to the state for assistance--belittles authentic volunteerism, the process by which individuals choose without economic benefit to help their neighbor. It also threatens the independence of the private associations that have always been the engine of moral and social reform in America.


The President's first principle for a Citizen Service Act is to "support and encourage greater engagement of citizens in volunteering."7 With that principle in mind, Congress should reorganize AmeriCorps as a catalyst for volunteerism by terminating appropriations for stipends and educational grants (which would have the benefit of removing the rules, regulations, and problems that follow government money) and refocusing the program on actively encouraging and motivating actual voluntary service.

AmeriCorps could become the equivalent for volunteerism of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports--promoting and removing barriers to volunteerism, identifying needed resources and distributing important information about volunteerism, giving out non-financial service awards, and providing a clearinghouse to identify and bring volunteers together with the service opportunities of their choice.

President Bush has issued a great challenge to this country. This noble call to service will be answered best not by a government program, but by the selfless acts of millions of citizens in voluntary associations, local communities, and private organizations that are at the heart of American charity. Just when terrible events have revived the national spirit and refocused Americans on the importance of family, friends, and faith, it would be wrong to pour more money into a program that tells Americans that what they really need to help their neighbors is more help from government.

Matthew Spalding is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, and Krista Kafer is Senior Policy Analyst for Education, at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Joseph Loconte and William W. Beach, "The Senate's Response to the President's Faith-Based Agenda: An Analysis of the CARE Act," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1555, May 24, 2002, at

2. For a critical analysis of the Clinton AmeriCorps program, as well as the general philosophy of paid volunteerism, see John Walters, "Clinton's AmeriCorps Values: How the President Misunderstands Citizenship," Policy Review, No. 75 (January-Feb-ruary 1996), and Kenneth R. Weinstein and August Stofferahn, "Time to End the Troubled AmeriCorps," Heritage Foundation Government Integrity Project Report, No. 13, May 22, 1997.

3. Planned Parenthood of Delaware, "PPDE Partners With AmeriCorps," at (June 24, 2002).

4. Alexis de Tocqueville, "The Use Which the Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life," Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part II, Chapter V, ed. and trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 489-492.

5. Independent Sector, "Giving and Volunteering in the United States 2001-Key Findings," at f, and AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy and The Center on Philanthropy, "2001 Contributions: $212.00 Billion by Source of Contributions," GIVING USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2001, at (June 26, 2002). Total giving by individuals, foundations, and corporations totaled $212 billion.

6. Knights of Columbus, "Knights of Columbus Reports New All-Time Highs in Charitable Giving, Volunteerism in 2001," press release, June 7, 2002, at (June 19, 2002).

7. Corporation for National and Community Service, "Principles and Reforms for a Citizen Service Act," at (June 24, 2002).


Krista Kafer
Krista Kafer

Former Senior Education Policy Analyst

Matthew Spalding

Vice President of American Studies