Support for AmeriCorps Program Growing in Congress

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Each year AmeriCorps has come before Congress for funding, there's been a knock-down, drag-out fight between Democrats who support the service organization and Republican conservatives who contend it's just another example of a bloated federal government.

But this year, many conservatives are quietly offering their support for a program they regard as flawed but worthy, in a turn of events that experts say signals the program's success.

"This program is on the verge of being institutionalized," said James Perry, an expert on national and community service at Indiana University Bloomington who has analyzed AmeriCorps programs in the Midwest and on the East Coast. "There is broad support."

Harris Wofford, the chief executive officer of the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, asked members of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on education last week to raise AmeriCorps' budget from $472 million in the current fiscal year to $585 million in fiscal 2000. Administrators hope to expand the program from 69,000 participants next year to 100,000 by 2002.

Mr. Wofford also asked that his agency be given additional funds for the Learn and Serve America program, which provides grants to elementary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions for service-learning activities; Senior Corps, a community-service program for people older than 55; and the Points of Light Foundation, which promotes volunteerism.

Management Problems

Started in 1993 at the strong urging of President Clinton, AmeriCorps was designed to engage young adults in community service while taking care of unmet human, education, environmental, and public-safety needs without displacing existing workers. Participants generally serve for a year and receive a $7,500 living stipend. Upon completion of the program, they are entitled to a $4,725 education grant to be used for higher education or job training. The grant is renewable for a maximum of two years.

In the past four years, the organization's records show, more than 100,000 AmeriCorps members served 33 million people in 4,000 communities. Their tasks included mentoring and tutoring more than 2.6 million children, planting more than 52 million trees, rehabilitating more than 25,000 homes, and providing career counseling for more than 330,000 people.

While the money is dispensed from the federal government, AmeriCorps is considered a grassroots operation, according to Tara Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Corporation for National Service. Two-thirds of the federal dollars are allocated to governor-appointed state commissions that determine which local organizations receive aid.

"Instead of creating programs, what AmeriCorps does is say, 'We're here to help you do the programs you're already doing,' " said Leslie Lenkowsy, a member of the corporation's board of directors.

Critics, however, describe AmeriCorps as "paid volunteerism" and say it undermines the work of many who already spend time serving their communities. Some add that AmeriCorps members could be manipulated for political purposes and that the money should be spent on more traditional social-service projects.

And then there's the question of the agency's management.

In 1990, Congress passed legislation requiring all federal agencies to be audited. The Corporation for National Service's financial house was considered in such disarray that no audit could be performed. Funds went undocumented, the computer systems were antiquated, and projects were not monitored well, auditors reported.

The corporation has been working ever since to come into compliance, and a partial audit was completed in 1997 and 1998.

"Prompt action on auditability and other financial and management weaknesses is urgently needed," Mr. Wofford told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, and Independent Agencies earlier this month. "We have focused substantial resources and activity on achieving solid and lasting solutions."

The hope is that the corporation will be fully audited for its fiscal 1999 operations, but some members of Congress remain skeptical.

"We've heard for three years now they're almost there, and we simply haven't seen it," said Jon Brandt, a spokesman for Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee's Oversight Subcommittee to Review Administration of AmeriCorps. "If there was any corporation that had inauditable books, they would have been shut down."

'New Direction'

But several members of Congress who were once critical of AmeriCorps admit they have changed their minds.

Mr. Wofford, a former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, has used his skills as a negotiator to build bipartisan support, said Mr. Perry of Indiana University.

Moreover, Republican governors from around the country who have enjoyed having the program's funding in their states are asking federal lawmakers to support AmeriCorps, Mr. Perry said.

Michigan Gov. John Engler and Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, both Republicans, like the program. Former Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who is gearing up to seek the gop presidential nomination, is also a fan, and former Republican Sen. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana is a convert.

Even Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who once described AmeriCorps as a program "for hippie kids to stand around a campfire to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' at taxpayers' expense," is reconsidering his opposition.

Mr. Santorum feels that "the programs have changed and that Harris Wofford has pushed it in a new direction," said Melissa Sabatine, a spokeswoman for the senator. "It gets people out of government service and into small nonprofits, where they are more facilitators than bureaucrats."

Conservatives have also been encouraged that "faith-based" organizations--groups with a religious affiliation--and nonprofits have agreed to recruit, train, and supervise some 15,000 of the 40,000 AmeriCorps members.

The initiative has reduced the federal government's cost of participation from $17,500 a year per member to about $15,000 a year per member.

Moreover, many members of Congress have seen the programs working in their local communities and have realized AmeriCorps is not so bureaucratic after all, Mr. Wofford said in an interview.

"Most people don't understand that it's not like the Peace Corps," Mr. Wofford said. "Most thought it was a Washington-run program where [the federal government] parachuted people into communities."

Favorable Review

Mr. Wofford can now also point to a positive evaluation of AmeriCorps released this this month by Aguirre International, a San Mateo, Calif., consulting company.

While the three-year study acknowledges that programs were not implemented well at first, AmeriCorps administrators soon tightened objectives, better monitored projects, and improved delivery, the report concludes.

"Despite the varied start-up challenges, AmeriCorps' programs displayed significant impact on the lives of AmeriCorps members and service beneficiaries," according to the report. "AmeriCorps members' involvement in community service not only heightened their life skills, civic responsibility, and education, but promoted social awareness and community understanding to an extent that would not have happened without AmeriCorps."

Ninety-nine percent of AmeriCorps members who were surveyed said they planned to continue some form of service in the future; only 56 percent said they had performed service for their communities before joining the program.

Moreover, the AmeriCorps workers provided relief to overburdened full-time employees of local organizations so they could concentrate on larger issues concerning community need, the report says.

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Pages 20-21

Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as Support for AmeriCorps Program Growing in Congress
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