AmeriCorps: 'Yikes, Bill! Those Snarly Fiscal Hounds Are Still Nipping at Our Toes!'

Heather Szerlag
September 1, 1995

Not even a year old, AmeriCorps — President Clinton's cherished community service initiative for youth — is already facing a life-or-death vote in Congress this fall.

Conservative Republicans are determined to remove the fledgling program from the federal cornucopia of social largess, charging that like some wormy pomegranate its rotten to the core.

With practically no track record to go on, however, opponents are seizing upon every conceivable miscue and nuance of data to justify zeroing out AmeriCorps' fiscal year 1996 appropriation — a step already approved by the House. Whether the Senate will go that far seems doubtful. But the fact that its still an undecided issue only lends more heat to the politicking. Some of the charges:

Newt’s Beef About ACORN

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.) accuses AmeriCorps members of engaging in "political advocacy" — a big no-no these days on Capitol Hill for federally-supported agencies. The alleged sin: financing the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) through a $945,000 grant to its affiliate. ACORN Housing Corporation (AHC), which provides mortgage counseling to low income minority families. Last March. ACORN-linked demonstrators heckled a Gingrich speech in Washington to protest cuts in the school lunch program - provoking his ire.

An AmeriCorps Investigation did not find any evidence of involvement by AmeriCorps participants in the incident.

ACORN Housing, however, was judged to be in violation of Corporation of National Service (CNS) rules governing AmeriCorps grantees and its remaining funding was yanked pending a full hearing this autumn for allegedly helping ACORN politically.

Acorn Housing executive director Mike Shea counters that his group was "too smart" to engage in political activity and is a victim of political maneuvering in Washington. “The real story is that Eli Segal (head of CNS) and the Corporation are desperately trying to save their program . . . and basically threw us to the dogs," he claims.

The Numbers Game

Trying to muster doubts about AmeriCorps’ costs are Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. John Hoekstra (R-Mich.), a one-time Americorps supporter who in his new role as chairman of Oversight and Investigations for the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities, has initiated a comprehensive investigation of the agency. At Grassley's request, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) probed his contention that the cost per AmeriCorps volunteer was far greater than what Congress had approved.

But because AmeriCorps was only part way through its first year, GAO could only produce a nebulous "available resources" cost quotient — by tallying all cash and in-kind support. On this basis total CNS resources expended per participant averaged out to $17,923. That's $700 dollars below initial Corporation estimates. But the average total resources per participant were put at $27,000. By counting "resources" this means even the cost of a room donated for AmeriCorps’ use could be included. Such in-kind support makes up more than a quarter of the GAO's total calculation of federal spending on the Clinton program.

That's ridiculous, says Rick Allen, director of Congressional relations for AmeriCorps. "It's a resource, but not a cost ... the report makes the most expensive series of assumptions you can make."

Philadelphia-based Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), a national intermediary to improve private and public sector youth programs, incidentally, has added more fuel to the fires by estimating AmeriCorps participants totaled only 15,800 at the end of April 1995. That's far below the 20,000 volunteers that were supposed to be in the field.

"Their numbers are just wrong," says Allen. “The evaluators spoke with state community directors in November of last year, when they were at most, six weeks into operations. The P/PV report was a snapshot in time and as we all know, life is a moving picture." Still, the Corporation hasn't yet produced a satisfactory "bottom line" total of enrolled volunteers. But an unrepentant Tom Smith, a P/PV vice president who authored the report, said the enrollment was "not bad for a program getting itself up and running."

On the plus side, the GAO report did suggest that AmeriCorps is fulfilling its mission: pursuing projects, strengthening communities, encouraging responsibility and expanding opportunity. It cited such projects as the rehabilitation of housing, connecting troubled youth with nursing home residents as well as expanding educational opportunities as some of its benefits. Effects opponents choose to ignore.

The debate has had its odder moments. Iowa's Grassley has contended that in giving participants $4,725 stipends toward their college education AmeriCorps is not very cost efficient. He suggests that in lieu of the agency's proposed FY '96 appropriation of $817 million, it would be better to issue more $2,000-a-year Pell Grants to help defray college costs. Except, in making this proposal, Grassley apparently forgot he was one of the supporters of the Republican-crafted revision bill earlier this year that sliced Pell Grants by $65 million (and the House wants to chop them by $521 million more in FY '96).

Grassley also condemns AmeriCorps for promoting "paid volunteerism,” claiming it discourages traditional volunteering. That proposition has found few adherents among youth service providers since most people understand that AmeriCorps is a full-time job. And few young adults, who comprise the bulk of the participants, especially those already saddled with student loans, could afford to volunteer lull time.

Nice Sweatshirt

Investigator Hoekstra has singled out the Galveston, Tex., Seaborne Conservation Corps (SCC) as having the highest per participant cost at $51,059 with their uniforms alone estimated at $ 1,400 each. He also claims this program used training funds to pay participants to work on their GEDs.

Not so, says Navy Lt. Denny Moynihan, a Pentagon spokesman. The per participant cost was actually $26,000 and uniforms came to $604 each, he said. Hoekstra's higher figures, he explained, stemmed from confusion over the AmeriCorps participant count since the SCC has 133 half-time participants equaling out to the 66 full-time participants noted in Hoekstra's complaint. The program is comprised of at-risk youth who are working towards their GEDs. The volunteers put in 900 hours of service and receive half the educational stipend of full-time volunteers.

Explaining the relatively higher cost of the program's uniforms, Moynihan said: “These kids come into the program without a lot of personal possessions so they outfit them with button-down shirts, blue uniforms, shorts, t-shirts, sweats, coveralls, boots, backpacks. It's not a lot of money to outfit someone for nine months and the uniforms are DOD (Department of Defense) funded."

Asked about whether the project did pay volunteers for their time working towards the GED, Rick Allen replied: "No, they're not paid for GED work. The program gets great value, though."

In another instance of what might be construed as partisan GOP numbers games, Bruce Cuthbertson of House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich's staff claimed AmeriCorps administrative costs were upwards of 50 percent. Asked where that high figure came from, Cuthbertson said he had determined the administrative costs by subtracting the participants' wages and educational stipends, roughly $13,000, from the GAO's preliminary averages of total resources per participant of $27,000. AmeriCorps claims its administrative costs to be eight percent, one of the lowest of any federal agency.

Wofford In, Segal Out

AmeriCorps was a "vision" theme of Clinton's 1992 campaign and he's not expected to part with it without a donny-brook in the approaching Congressional showdown. That may in fact be part of the program's problem. Says John Briscoe of Visions International, a Harrisburg, Pa., non-profit that fields its own AmeriCorps contingent:

"The good news is Clinton will fight like hell for it. And the bad news is that Clinton will fight like hell for it."

To shore up Congressional support, the President has named former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) to replace Eli Segal as head of the Corporation for National Service. Segal, with Senate approval, will remain on the Corporation's board of directors. AmeriCorps proponents hope that the nomination of Wofford, respected for his work as a civil rights advocate, a former Peace Corps official and tireless promoter of national service, will mend relations with Congressional detractors. And the departure of Segal, Clinton's former election campaign director, will take some of the edge off partisan rancor.

The Republican FY '95 revision measure may hold a clue of AmeriCorps' chances for survival. The Senate proposed a relatively mild, $105 million cut, where as the House voted to slash $372 million from its $575 million budget. The Senate's smaller cut prevailed in the final vote.

Another positive sign: AmeriCorps has been receiving favorable press in as un-likely of places as the editorial pages of the conservative Washington Times and Business Week.

While encouraged, John Briscoe who once ran the Pennsylvania Service Corps sees trouble ahead. "A group of junior senators, led I'm sorry to say by a senator from Pennsylvania, went to (Senate Majority Leader Robert) Dole and said, ‘we want to do a floor vote.’” Briscoe said a floor vote might be too much pressure for some of AmeriCorps' original Republican supporters who he describes as "those profiles in courage with the political resolve of Jell-0."

Republican Rick Santorum is Pennsylvania's budget-slashing junior senator, who along with Sens. Dan Coats (R-lnd.) and John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), has proposed an amendment to the Welfare Reform bill that would "terminate" AmeriCorps to pay for a tax deduction for charitable activities that support the poor and needy.

AmeriCorps appropriation falls under, the Veterans, Housing and Urban Development bill, an area where Republicans have set low budget caps, Jill Kozeny of Grassley’s office noted that this will place AmeriCorps funding in indirect competition with "programs for veterans and the poor and the elderly."

One-time AmeriCorps advocate Hoekstra said of his change of heart, "AmeriCorps appears to be a good idea gone bad ... I had envisioned a simple volunteer program, yet they expanded it ... it has moved from a volunteer program to what looks like an employment program."

Hoekstra, who was born in the Netherlands, and lives in Holland, Mich., was spending some of the Congressional recess bicycling around his eastern Lake Michigan district visiting volunteer organizations that are privately funded. Said Hoekstra staffer Amy Plaster of the bicycle tour, "the idea is not to slam AmeriCorps, but to highlight what the folks in the district have been doing."

Soon, AmeriCorps too may hit the dusty trail. But the question for Bill Clinton's favorite program is whether it will be a one-way trip.

Szerlag, Heather. "AmeriCorps: 'Yikes, Bill! Those Snarly Fiscal Hounds Are Still Nipping at Our Toes!'" href="" target="_blank">Youth Today, September/October 1995, p. 12.

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