Magazine article The American Conservative

National Disservice: President Obama's Feel-Good Draft

Magazine article The American Conservative

National Disservice: President Obama's Feel-Good Draft

Article excerpt

ON MARCH 18, the House of Representatives voted 321-105 to pass the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, and the Senate is expected quickly to follow suit. The GIVE Act more than triples the number of slots for AmeriCorps members from 75,000 to 250,000. And it takes a giant step toward expanding Washington's power to make "service" compulsory for all young Americans.

President Obama praises AmeriCorps for embodying "the best of our nation's history, diversity and commitment to service." In reality, AmeriCorps's essence is paying people on false pretenses to do unnecessary things.

Since President Clinton created the program in 1993, politicians of both parties have endlessly touted its recruits as volunteers toiling selflessly for the common good. But the average AmeriCorps member receives more than $15,000 a year in pay and other benefits, and almost 90 percent go on to work for government agencies or nonprofit groups. Rather than financial martyrdom, signing up for AmeriCorps is, for many, akin to a paid internship.

Even though AmeriCorps is popular with the Washington establishment, it has always been a laughingstock. During the Clinton administration, AmeriCorps members helped run a program in Buffalo that gave children $5 for each toy gun they brought in, as well as a certificate praising their decision not to play with these trinkets. In San Diego, AmeriCorps members busied themselves collecting used bras and panties for a homeless shelter. In Los Angeles, they foisted unreliable ultra-low-flush toilets on poor people.

Indeed, AmeriCorps's projects produce little more than sanctimony and headlines for news-starved local newspapers. Among the program's recent coups:

* In San Francisco, AmeriCorps members busy themselves mediating elementary school playground disputes.

* In Florida, AmeriCorps recruits in the Women in Distress program organized a poetry reading on the evils of domestic violence.

* In Oswego, New York, they set up a donation bin to gather used cellphones for victims of domestic violence.

* In Montana, members encouraged people to donate books to ship to Cameroon.

* In Lafayette, Louisiana, with help from the local Junior League, AmeriCorps led an effort to recycle prom dresses for high-school students.

And 11 AmeriCorps members spent several weeks at a Biloxi, Mississippi elementary school last fall helping the school "go green." Students gathered more than 3,000 pounds of recyclable material. Much was paper, which is currently fetching barely $100 a ton, but the project presumably made all participants glow with virtue.

Puppet shows are a favorite activity for AmeriCorps members around the country. In Springfield, Illinois, they donned puppets to school 3-year-olds at the Little Angels Child Care Center about the benefits of smoke detectors.

Reading-related and other education activities are often presented as a prime justification for tripling the program's size. President Clinton set the standard when he declared in a 1997 radio address touting AmeriCorps's literacy efforts: "All you really need to do is to roll up your sleeves, sit with a child and open a book together." When it comes to the hard work of actually teaching kids how to read, opening books is apparently "close enough for government work." But in truth, AmeriCorps has shown little if any competence at teaching literacy. It makes do with a "fun with books" motif that provides as much benefit as watching a few episodes of "Sesame Street."

Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter, one of the program's biggest proponents, praises AmeriCorps for its "15 years of scandal-free" history. Not exactly.

The program was tainted from the get-go. In its early years, members were routinely used as backdrops for photo opportunities when President Clinton arrived on tarmacs around the nation. And AmeriCorps "volunteers" were repeatedly involved in political advocacy and petitioning. …

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