Nov 1, 2011

Obama, AmeriCorps, and jobs

Back in the halcyon days of 2008, Barack Obama talked a lot about national service. He famously proposed a plan to double the Peace Corps and triple AmeriCorps.Though the Peace Corps didn't get quite that size a boost, AmeriCorps did: back in 2009 President Obama signed a bill to triple its size, though the requisite funds were never completely appropriated. Even before the Obama expansion, AmeriCorps was by far the largest national service program in the United States. It now employs around 80,000 people every year, at a bare-bones $10,000 or so each.

It is curious that the president's jobs plan does not include anything on the program. If what the economy needs is jobs, AmeriCorps is about the cheapest and quickest way to get some. The program also provides community assistance at a time when state and local governments are slashing their public services—last year alone they cut 200,000 jobs.

It was the National and Community Service Trust Act, signed by President Clinton in 1993, that technically created AmeriCorps, though the first President Bush laid the foundation with the National Service Act of 1990. Its objectives—providing a lot of the grunt work for Habitat for Humanity, for instance—are so unobjectionable it is one of a vanishingly few programs that still enjoy some bipartisan support—more Senate Republicans voted for Obama's expansion than against. George W. Bush, though his funding of the program was somewhat uneven, consistently supported the ideal of volunteerism, and held an event at the White House celebrating the 500,000th AmeriCorps volunteer.

However, now the Tea Party holds the House, AmeriCorps is suspended over the garbage disposal for the third time this year. House Republicans don't just want to cut the program—they want to eliminate it entirely. (Jim DeMint says the program is "the federal government reaching further into the world of civil society.") Given the previous Republican support, this seems odd. But a descent into the fever swamps could help explain the new GOP position. One facet of opposition involves former AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin, who was fired back in 2009. It’s a long story, but see here for a list of reasons the AmeriCorps board (who asked for him to be removed) had for sending him off. On that list was a complaint from a US Attorney that in an investigation of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (an Obama ally), Walpin was behaving unprofessionally: trying “to act as the investigator, advocate, judge, jury and town crier.” Walpin’s sued to get his job back; his suit was thrown out and he lost the appeal. But the conservative media uses Walpin as an example of a clearly politically-motivated firing, and cites his unproved investigation as obvious fact.

It goes on in this vein. Michelle Malkin calls AmeriCorps “FoodStampCorps,” claiming it is “essentially a special taxpayer-funded pipeline for radical liberal groups backed by billionaire George Soros that masquerade as public-interest do-gooders.” Glenn Beck compared the program to the SS, the Nazi paramilitary organization. Ed Morrissey insists that volunteers should not be paid. (Leave it to the 1%, then?)

In any case, given that even the easy parts of Obama's bill have a slim chance of passing this House, one might expect the president to be pressing the AmeriCorps issue every chance he gets. Why not expand a program to the level a bipartisan bill has already authorized? On this, one can only speculate. AmeriCorps has many highly-placed supporters—John McCain is a big fan—and it could be that Obama is trying to keep the program out of the headlines so congressional insiders can save it in negotiations. He did request $1.26 billion for the agency overseeing AmeriCorps in his FY2012 budget back in February, a marked increase from FY2011.

AmeriCorps survived the 90s and the Bush years by a combination of those influential supporters and a nationwide network of governors, mayors, and universities. A petition earlier this year to save it got 105,000 signatures. Despite the conservative howling, the program is cheap—for the price of FY2011’s Bush tax cuts for the rich, we could have hired more than 4 million members.

Whatever happens, let us hope someone can at least keep AmeriCorps from the Tea Party's axe, by whatever means available. It is a valuable program and well worth expanding.

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