Sunday, November 29, 2009

AmeriCorps, an American Neoplasm

Maybe you've seen the commercial with a young girl saying "I am change..." as red-jacketed young people do calisthenics.  Even though the young people are forming into militaryesque lines, their stylish hairdos and outlandish red jackets clearly show that they're not in the military. The organization they're recruiting for is City Year, an organization founded in 1998 by two Harvard roommates.  As I found out through a websearch, City Year is part of AmeriCorps.

So aside from the eh, distinctive garb (which, yes, you do get to keep after your year of service) what attractions does City Year offer to new recruits?  According to their current position description, a City Year participant will be awarded a $4,725 education credit, a "modest weekly stipend," and possibly a student loan forbearance.

A gal I know recently mentioned that she's thinking about volunteering with AmeriCorps when she graduates.  Why? I asked her.  She said she wants to "give back."  She heard about the program from a professor while she was an undergrad, and when she finishes her graduate degree she's thinking about joining the organization.  Internally I wondered how well the organization would use her specialized training.  I mean, do they have jobs specific for her science background? 

So what kind of jobs do City Year members actually do?  Their commercial flashed up images of Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and others, but if I join, what can I expect besides doing jumping jacks in my red jumpsuit?  Here's their overall mission statement:

"City Year unites young people of all backgrounds for a year of full-time service, giving them the skills and opportunities to change the world.

"As tutors, mentors and role models, these diverse young leaders make a difference in the lives of children, and transform schools and neighborhoods in 19 U.S. locations and one in Johannesburg, South Africa. Just as important, during their year of service corps members develop civic leadership skills they can use throughout a lifetime of community service.

"Major corporations and businesses participate in our mission by serving as strategic partners, team sponsors, and national leadership sponsors.

"Together we're building a citizen service movement that is larger than our organization, our lifetime, and ourselves."

What's not clarified is the type of change the organization is committed to.  What worldview is this organization committed to?  I mean, handing out toothbrushes, or conversely guns and bombs, would effect change in the world, but what does City Year have in mind?  Their website was high on vague phrases, but provided no specifics.  Fortunately, their 2008 Annual Report actually listed the organizations they've partnered with, by state and by city.  City Year has partnered with such well-known organizations as Habitat for Humanity and many churches and hospitals.  I searched for "Planned Parenthood," and found that while City Year has partnered with PP in Ohio, they have not partnered with a single crisis pregnancy center in any state.  

AmeriCorps itself lists more specific, if carefully selected, job descriptions:

  • Tutor and mentor disadvantaged youth
  • Fight illiteracy
  • Improve health services
  • Build affordable housing
  • Teach computer skills
  • Clean parks and streams
  • Manage or operate after-school programs
  • Help communities respond to disasters
  • Build organizational capacity

What's not described is that AmeriCorps members have been known to buy toy guns from toddlers, and to tackle perceived "anti-gay" prejudice.  ACORN and AmeriCorps have even partnered together.  It's documented that at least as far back as 1997, "AmeriCorps members of AHC [ACORN Housing Corporation] raised funds for ACORN, performed voter registration activities, and gave partisan speeches..."

Here is the vapid pledge that the 540,000 AmeriCorps past and current members have taken:

The AmeriCorps Pledge

I will get things done for America -
to make our people safer,
smarter, and healthier.

I will bring Americans together
to strengthen our communities.

Faced with apathy,
I will take action.

Faced with conflict,
I will seek common ground.

Faced with adversity,
I will persevere.

I will carry this commitment
with me this year and beyond.

I am an AmeriCorps member,
and I will get things done.

So the goal is "to get things done."  How generic.  How vague.  How open-ended.  How manipulatable.  Some of their efforts are worthy, and many are entirely off-base and illegal.  Without even getting into the question of how much choice an individual City Year or AmeriCorps member has in what they participate in, why do we need such a program, and why is it federally funded? has this to say about AmeriCorps: "If it weren't for AmeriCorps, after all, young people might decide they're perfectly capable of giving back to their communities without the assistance or direction of the federal government. And wouldn't that be a tragedy?"

Good point.  Why does the gal I talked to think that she needs to go through a program in order to "give back"?  After all, I know a guy who donates his time to supplement highschoolers' education with free chemistry instruction.  And I know a gal who gives her time to teach middleschoolers to sew, draw, garden, and cook.  (That guy and gal are my parents, and they're members of a breed of volunteers who actually volunteer.  That is, they do not receive any monetary or in-kind compensation -- including red jumpsuits -- for what they do).

AmeriCorps isn't about volunteerism.  It's about compensated service.  Let's just call it what it is.  That members of our legislative and executive branches do not understand what the word "volunteer" means is abundantly clear.  As as example, take Obama's push to cap tax credits for charitable donations.  Or take the fact that when the U.S. House passed their version of the GIVE/SERVE bill that enormously increased the funding for AmeriCorps, it included a provision for mandatory "volunteer" service.  To be clear, if it's compensated and it's mandatory, it's not volunteerism.

How well has the organization handled its money?  At one point AmeriCorp donated $1.1 million to ACORN (which ACORN had to repay).  But ACORN knows a cash cow when it sees one, and there's been plenty of milking action going on -- though this was curtailed in the GIVE/SERVE act that became law earlier this year.  It's estimated that each member costs $17,500 annually.  Back in June of this year, Gerald Walpin, an inspector general of Corporation for National and Community Service, unearthed widespread fraud in the largest AmeriCorps program in the country.  He recommended that the Teaching Fellows Program pay back $75 million they had misused.  Walpin was summarily fired by Our Dear Leader, and replaced by one of the First Lady's cronies.

While the catchy (or as I see it overworked and conveniently vague) reference to "change" evokes images of Our Dear Leader, give credit where credit is due.  AmeriCorps was begun by the now-impeached Bill Clinton in 1993.  After 9/11, Bush Jr. encouraged all Americans to volunteer, and pushed federal programs like AmeriCorps vigorously.  In 2007, he sponsored a national recognition week for AmeriCorps when it reached the 500,000 current member and alumni mark.  Obama has now adopted AmeriCorps, and Republicans helped him triple the program by means of the $6 billion GIVE/SERVE act that seeks to expand the membership of AmeriCorps by 175,000, bringing its currently employed sum total to 250,000.  This law will increase the federal civilian workforce by 13%, and make AmeriCorps the 14th largest employer in the U.S.

Our Dear Leader describes the role of AmeriCorps this way: "Our government can help to rebuild our economy ... [but] we need Americans willing to mentor our eager young children, or care for the sick, or ease the strains of deployment on our military families..."

Others disagree:
"AmeriCorps is a wasteful boondoggle" -- Kate O'Beirne, correspondent, National Review.
"[T]he government-run, taxpayer-subsidized 'community service' boondoggle." -- Michelle Malkin, independent blogger.
"AmeriCorps in based on an unconstitutional misconception, and its continuance amounts to the systematic theft of the American people.  It is an example of how rapidly an unchecked government can grow.  Cut its funding and cut back on government metastasis."  -- me, U.S. citizen.

No comments: