By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
President Bush, who embraced AmeriCorps as part of his "compassionate conservative" agenda in 2001, now wants to shut down a part of the national service program that his administration has deemed "ineffective."
Beginning next year, the White House would reduce funding for the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps from $27 million to $5 million with the goal of closing it down, according to the president's budget. About 81 full-time staff members would lose their jobs.
Created by President Bill Clinton in 1993 as a kind of domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps is a network of three federal programs devoted to youth service in areas such as education, health, public safety and the environment. Participants in all three become eligible for education grants of $4,725 to pay for college or to repay student loans.
The programs are:
· AmeriCorps State and National, which provides grants to public and nonprofit groups that, in turn, take on more than 67,000 AmeriCorps volunteers who help with service projects.
· AmeriCorps Vista, which annually provides about 6,000 full-time participants to nonprofit, faith-based and community organizations that help impoverished communities.
· AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, which brings more than 1,100 18- to 24-year-olds together on five residential campuses to spend 10 months working on service projects, with an emphasis on homeland security and disaster relief.
Although the larger two programs face modest or no budget cuts, the prospect of the elimination of the civilian corps dismays former AmeriCorps members. The nonprofit group AmeriCorps Alums is urging advocates to contact members of Congress, and former member Thomas Howard Jr., 29, created SaveNCCC.org on the day the budget came out this month.
The program "enhanced my desire to help out with social justice," said NCCC alumnus Brian Roberts, 24, who works full time on behalf of abused and neglected children for the Children's Law Center in Washington.
"I had always seen myself as some sort of more office/corporate-type person," Roberts said. "And then I did AmeriCorps and I realized that what I really enjoyed was working with people, especially people who might not be able to help themselves."
In the 1990s, congressional Republicans, who had no love for one of Clinton's favorite initiatives, regularly targeted AmeriCorps for budget cuts. They said the program cost too much per volunteer and undermined the spirit of service by giving participants monetary rewards.
Bush's embrace seemed to offer AmeriCorps a measure of protection, even as it suffered controversy and internal financial management problems in 2003.
But now the White House says the NCCC program, at least, is not worth the money. A review by the Office of Management and Budget found it to be "extremely expensive," with a per-participant cost of $27,859. In contrast, the other nonresidential AmeriCorps programs typically have a per-participant cost of $16,000.
The review also noted that only 7 percent of members' service was focused on disaster relief. Instead, most time was devoted to tutoring children, building trails for national parks and building houses for low-income families.
David Eisner, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps' parent agency, called the 7 percent "a little misleading" because it focused on data from 2004, when there was comparatively little disaster relief work.
These days, about half of all participants are in Mississippi and Louisiana at any given time, pitching in with Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts for eight-to-nine-week stints, Eisner said.
But there is no denying that the program's cost stands out, especially when the corporation's overall budget is shrinking 5.4 percent, to $851.5 million, he said.
"It's an extremely difficult budget year for non-security discretionary budgets, and this is the right way to manage a slight decrease in the national service budget," Eisner said. "It's heartbreaking because of the strong work that we know that NCCC does."
Full-time staff members who lose their jobs would receive outplacement services and, in many cases, would be first in line for any openings at the corporation. All program participants would be able to finish their service. Even with the budget cuts, AmeriCorps would still have 75,000 participants in 2007, Eisner said.
Andrew Judd, 24, who spent two months in Florida helping to repair roofs after hurricanes Ivan and Charley ransacked that state in 2004, said he was angry and shocked that the Bush administration would kill the program.
"It's a very valuable program, and I was disappointed to see that it wasn't getting the recognition that it deserves," said Judd, who counsels children in Denver public schools for the nonprofit group Denver Kids Inc.
"Just a few years ago, there was the president's call to service. People have been responding to it -- and now it's being cut off."