Tuesday, June 17, 2008

AmeriCorps: Saving Americans from Flooding

"Show me the priority list that keeps this alive and show me what what you kill in order to keep this alive," Mr. Gingrich said. "The President's answer is, 'Don't have a balanced budget, and your grandchildren will be glad that you borrowed the money from them to do this in your lifetime.'
--Speaker Newt Gingrich, Feb 8, 1995, commenting on funding the AmeriCorps Program

Volunteers from AmeriCorps are making their presence felt in towns along the Mississippi that face record flood water levels. But can anyone remember when the Republicans were eager to destroy the AmeriCorps program?

The next time you feel like kvetching about how the federal government wastes your tax dollars, think about Kyle Henning and Katie Rooney. For health insurance, a few hundred bucks a month, a small educational grant and all the ready-to-eat meals they can stomach, they just might save your town.

They are too modest to make any such claim themselves, but this hamlet’s epic battle against the surging Mississippi River would almost certainly not be going as well as it is were it not for Henning, 25, Rooney, 23, and a handful of their AmeriCorps teammates.

Last week, as soggy Midwest states to the north began sending their storm runoff south, threatening towns for hundreds of miles along the Mississippi, the AmericCorps team showed up to help Clarksville make its stand.

They quickly saw that they could best assist the town, with its unpaid mayor and council and tiny city staff, by coordinating volunteer and liaison efforts at City Hall.

AmeriCorps' Katie Rooney helps coordinate volunteer efforts in Clarksville on Monday.

“I think they are awesome,” said Clarksville Alderman Mike Russell, also the town’s emergency services manager. “I can literally tell you that if it was not for them running the City Hall end, we would be much worse off.” If parts of the town successfully fend off the record floodwaters expected by the weekend, it will be largely because of Rooney, Henning and their colleagues, he added.

So when is someone going to ask Kit Bond how smart it was to cap the AmeriCorps program at 50,000?

[Salon.com - Mar 3, 2003] Despite Bush's promises to expand the program dramatically over last year's $265 million, it encountered strong opposition among congressional conservatives who are usually allied with Bush. The House whip, Republican Dick Armey of Texas, who has called AmeriCorps "obnoxious," and Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., added a measure to the budget bill last fall to cap the program at 50,000 volunteers -- a direct slap at the president's "compassionate" agenda.

Bush saw what was happening, critics say, but did nothing to stop it. Even last December, when the administration knew Congress had capped the number of volunteers at 50,000 in the budget bill, he was still claiming in speeches that the AmeriCorps program was "expanding mightily," [Senator Evan] Bayh said.

The volunteers are "doing a lot to work to mentor and clean parks and take care of the elderly," Bush said in a Dec. 10 talk to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. "Listen, part of making sure America is a compassionate place means acts as simple as walking into a shut-in's home and saying 'I love you' on a regular basis."

Bush signed the $275 million budget -- which included the 50,000-volunteer limit -- last month [Feb 2003]

Andy Lent in Vinton, Iowa posted this last month:

The second thought is that we will be very fortunate to have AmeriCorps here in about a month. The AmeriCorps volunteers are trained for exactly these types of situations. There may be some that come from other parts of the country right now, but it will be nice to have them nearby to respond more quickly.

Is someone going to ask wingnut Kate O'Beirne about this article?

Because AmeriCorps can "foster good citizenship," Goldsmith and Lenkowsky expect that their fellow conservatives will join with liberals to support the expanded program. But ever since Bill Clinton created it in 1993, AmeriCorps has involved a different sort of flag-waving for its conservative critics, who saw only red at the notion of a bureaucratized paid-"volunteer" program. Under AmeriCorps, about 50,000 members a year sign on to work between 20 and 40 hours a week, for up to two years, in exchange for a $4,725 annual award to use for college costs. About half of the participants also receive a living allowance, bringing the total cost of each AmeriCorps "volunteer" to $14,025 a year, according to Goldsmith. Bush's proposal would increase the number of members by 25,000, and impose new accountability measures in response to the program's conservative critics.

But the critics are right: AmeriCorps is a wasteful boondoggle. After a few years of monitoring the program — and armed with critical reports from the General Accounting Office — the House Appropriations Committee eliminated the funding for AmeriCorps. (The program was spared by the Senate.) James Bovard found enough abuses in AmeriCorps to devote a whole chapter to it in his book Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years. Bovard found plenty of examples of AmeriCorps participants' wasting their time, engaging in liberal advocacy, and making wildly exaggerated claims about their accomplishments. In Buffalo, for example, members ran a program that paid children $5 for each toy gun turned in; and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center's AmeriCorps program tackles "society's last 'acceptable' prejudice: anti-gay bias." About half of AmeriCorps members are involved in tutoring and mentoring programs, and Clinton praised participants for having "taught millions of children to read"; but this homage is dubious, given the lack of evidence that a single child is now literate because of AmeriCorps.

Proxies for Representative Jerry Lewis chimed in back in 2006:

But a spokesman for Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., suggested that other lawmakers would be happy to see the NCCC go.

"This Congress has never been a fan of AmeriCorps," said spokesman John Scofield, calling the NCCC "very costly and poorly administered."

Asked if it would hurt to pull volunteers out of the Gulf Coast at this time, Scofield said, "We've spent $85 billion on assistance for the Gulf, I don't know if these reductions would have any impact on that at all."

Yeah, how has that whole New Orleans thing turned out? I'm sure that the answer gives the people in Iowa and all of the other affected areas a great deal of comfort to know that the Republican Party is so dedicated to making sure there are programs to help them out when disaster strikes.

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