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AmeriCorps the Beautiful

Here's how to reform Clinton's national service program for the Bush era

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 2001 • By LESLIE LENKOWSKY
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OF ALL THE SURVIVORS of the Clinton era, the most unlikely may be AmeriCorps, the administration's "national service" program. The idea of enlisting an army of young people to devote a year or two to community betterment for minimal compensation had been around for close to a century, with little to show for it. When President Clinton proposed his version of the idea in 1993, it met opposition from conservatives (who objected to "paying people to volunteer") and only lukewarm support from liberals (who preferred to spend the money on traditional social programs). Since getting underway in 1994, AmeriCorps has been beset with management problems and charges that its participants -- or "members," in the corps lingo -- were improperly involved in political activities. Proposals to eliminate its funding have been an annual ritual of the budget process, partly because Congress quickly learned it could get the White House to make deals on other items if it threatened to end AmeriCorps.


Yet today, the program has a $ 330 million budget and annually enrolls over 40,000 people, 17 years of age or older, in 2,600 projects throughout the United States. Even with the end of the Clinton administration, AmeriCorps is unlikely to fade away. Because of its presence in communities, it has built a base of support among governors, mayors, and charity officials. Seeing its impact in their districts, once skeptical congressmen and senators have reassessed their opinions of the program. During the campaign, George W. Bush indicated he saw no reason to eliminate it if it were working well (and even proposed a major expansion of a sister program, the Senior Service Corps, which enlists older people for part-time assignments).


But is AmeriCorps working well? Notwithstanding the program's much-publicized problems, there's little doubt that its members are performing a great deal of useful service: tutoring, mentoring, assisting elderly and disabled people, cleaning up polluted waterways, organizing neighborhood crime patrols, and much more. They also add often sorely needed staff to charities -- including faith-based ones, such as Habitat for Humanity and the Sisters of Notre Dame. So far, there's no evidence that the stipend for living expenses -- or the $ 4,725 per year educational award at the end of the tour of duty (a la the GI Bill) -- dampens the willingness of AmeriCorps members to volunteer without pay after their service.


But AmeriCorps is still a long way from realizing its goal of systematically mobilizing civic energies to address the nation's grass-roots problems. The number of participants is still relatively small. (The Clinton administration had plans for more than doubling the figure to 100,000, but even that is a tiny fraction of college-age young people.) Charities that could badly use help often have a hard time enlisting it from AmeriCorps, partly because they are required to put up their own money to match what the federal government pays. And despite a network of state commissions aimed at making the program responsive to local concerns, complaints about too much direction from Washington are frequently heard.


These shortcomings are largely due to the fact that AmeriCorps looks more like a traditional Washington social program than the prototype for "reinvented" government the Clinton administration proclaimed it would be. Indeed, AmeriCorps does not really recruit thousands of would-be members each year and send them out to do good throughout the country. Instead, both the Washington office and the state commissions conduct grant competitions among nonprofit organizations. The winners then recruit people who want to be AmeriCorps members, including any who may have first contacted the national office.


Among the advantages of this way of operating is that it restricts AmeriCorps to a group of organizations that know the ropes of government contracting and can be readily monitored. It also enables both Washington and the state offices to set priorities for what participants will do. During the 1996 campaign, for example, President Clinton made a commitment to increase the number of AmeriCorps members helping children learn to read. The ensuing round of grant competitions reflected this.


As a result, charities that address other problems were left contending over a smaller pot of AmeriCorps money. And young people who wished to serve their country by helping, say, the elderly or a neighborhood development effort had fewer opportunities. Some even had to incur the additional cost of moving to a different city.


AmeriCorps, in other words, reflects the needs of public officials and well-established charities as much as those of would-be volunteers and grass-roots groups. (Some organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and Colin Powell's former home, America's Promise, have even managed to get their grants written into the budget of the program's parent agency, the Corporation on National Service.) That does not make AmeriCorps a bad program; its grantees usually have a good record and can be counted on to handle government money responsibly. But it does make it a limited one.


The new administration should consider broadening the mission of AmeriCorps. This would entail some risks, but would not be difficult. Instead of running a competition for nonprofit organizations, AmeriCorps and its state affiliates could set up a selection process for individuals, possibly something as simple as a lottery. The volunteers chosen could then each receive a voucher and would have a period of time -- three months, perhaps -- to find a charity willing to put them to work. Any organization with meaningful work to be done that meets the standards of a recognized accrediting agency, such as the United Way or the National Association of Evangelicals, would be allowed to redeem the voucher to compensate the AmeriCorps member. Smaller, loosely structured groups could be approved through a vetting process similar to those used for non-traditional applicants in the states with the best provisions for charter schools.


The most immediate result of this new way of operating would be that a much wider group of charities, concerned with a much broader range of problems, would benefit from AmeriCorps. And people interested in serving would find the barriers to doing so reduced. Some might choose to spend their time, say, at the nursing home that had looked after their grandparents or to work full-time for a church group in their home neighborhood. The program's cost per member might go down, too, since the administrative burdens that come with government grants would be reduced. In addition, more members might be able to live at home or with friends and thus participate in AmeriCorps for just an educational award -- as one-third of members already do.


On the other hand, scattering AmeriCorps members far and wide among the nation's charities would make it much harder to confirm impressive-sounding statistics about numbers of children tutored, vacant lots cleaned up, and houses built. Nor would politicians have as many opportunities to be photographed at rallies of young people wearing AmeriCorps sweatshirts. More important, ensuring that the tens of thousands of participants really did perform meaningful work would be harder if they were attached to a wider array of organizations, including many unversed in government accounting.


Yet any program genuinely aimed at unleashing civic energies to solve local problems is bound to confront these difficulties. Most of the nation's charities are small and count their successes in small numbers. The most effective ones are frequently the least visible and least willing to be used as political props. Good management skills are by no means unappreciated or absent. But they may be less important to those in charge than doing what is necessary, even if it might later dismay the auditors. A government program that seriously aimed to assist grass-roots charities simply could not operate with military precision.


This has always been the difficulty with national service. Its advocates envisage a force capable of attacking local problems with all the vigor of a military mobilization. A century ago, William James -- a pacifist looking for a constructive outlet for young men's energies -- embraced national service as the "moral equivalent of war." Though hardly the creation of pacifists, AmeriCorps partakes of the notion that it offers an alternative to military service. It is organized along platoon-like lines and uses oaths, insignia, and uniforms. A small wing of the program even operates out of former or downsized military bases.


Few of the nation's voluntary groups share that character. Instead of disciplined, goal-oriented teams, they rely on loose collections of independent-minded citizens to help with ventures whose outcomes are often uncertain and far in the future. Those community groups that achieve lasting impact usually do so by cultivating numerous, slow-maturing relationships in which personal commitment and persistence count for more than esprit de corps. Making charities really work depends less on martial values than on philanthropic and spiritual ones.


Supplementing the current AmeriCorps with a voucher-based model well-adapted to problem-solving in local communities would make the program work better. More important, it would allow AmeriCorps members to derive from their service a truer understanding of our national civic life.




Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of philanthropic studies with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. He is a member of the board of directors of the Corporation on National Service. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.