Rally for AmeriCorps

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Since the 1993 passage of Bill Clinton’s national service legislation that set up the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency has spent $4 billion, much of it on the 300,000 young adult Americans who have enrolled in its AmeriCorps program.

Precious few federal programs ever seem to make it down to direct services in low-income communities. AmeriCorps, VISTA and other programs administered directly by CNCS or through state commissions stand out as sterling examples of success in “getting things done.”

When President George W. Bush took office, the conventional wisdom was that Bill Clinton’s pet program was a goner, along with the $731 million spent in 2000 on up to 51,717 participants in AmeriCorps and other CNCS programs, such as Learn and Serve. After all, some Republicans in Congress regularly whacked CNCS for even the most trifling lapses – such as a program in Corpus Christi, Texas, that spent too much on T-shirts.

Predictions of doom proved wrong. As Texas governor, Bush supported AmeriCorps, and as president he has called for its reauthorization by Congress. Instead of withering away, enrollment rose to 59,200 in 2001. This year the White House has asked for a much-needed expansion from 50,000 slots to 75,000.

To lead CNCS, Bush appointed former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith to chair the nine-member board, and conservative pundit and philanthropy expert Les Lenkowsky as CEO. Both have long been supporters of civic engagement and national service (sans activist challenges to the status quo).

At a recent national gathering sponsored by Innovations in Civic Participation, those officials, plus USA Freedom Corps Director John Bridgeland, reiterated the administration’s support for national service, although the White House has not strained to push through Congress the actions that are needed to maintain and expand that concept.

Unfortunately, CNCS found itself in an administrative nightmare last fall. Thanks to poor budgeting and administrative decisions, AmeriCorps was forced to “pause” its enrollment of new participants for almost four months. Most insiders point the finger not just at CNCS but at the White House Office of Management and Budget and a 107th Congress that couldn’t pass a budget expeditiously.

Frankly, the 2,100 agencies that are aided by AmeriCorps participants couldn’t care less who’s to blame for the arcane snafu. In light of the enormous decreases proposed in so many other federal youth-serving programs, the Bush administration’s pending request for $962.4 million for all CNCS programs is urgently needed. But a Congress that can find $350 billion in new tax reductions for the wealthy seems determined to kill CNCS through a thousand cuts.

It is Congress that has failed to pass the Citizens Service Act, which would reauthorize national service legislation that expired in 1996.

It is Congress that rescinded the $111 million for modest education awards given to those who complete a year of full-time service, which led to the painful “pause”.

And it is members of Congress, from both parties, who seem intent on derailing CNCS over accounting issues. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the self-described “godmother of national service,” calls CNCS “truly a train wreck.” Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) labels CNCS “a broken house” unworthy of increased funding.

Wrecked and broken is a more apt description of Congress’ budget-crafting acumen.

The truth is, the oversight record of Congress has been in steady decline for decades. True oversight is difficult and time-consuming. That task is now subordinated to fundraising, which captures most of the time of members of Congress.

At CNCS’ recent board meeting in Cleveland, CEO Lenkowsky announced he will soon be leaving his post. During his two years on the job, the able Lenkowsky has shown himself to be not just a compassionate conservative, but a pragmatic one, too.

Congress could show a little more pragmatism by swiftly passing some version of the Citizens Service Act and granting the president’s funding request for CNCS. That will enable the corporation to get its house in administrative order, while not punishing AmeriCorps or its vital contributions to so many youth-serving agencies.

A Real Second Chance

This year some 600,000 people will be released from incarceration. Many of them were teenagers when they committed their crimes. A disturbing new book issued by The Sentencing Project, “Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment,” makes clear the full extent to which the cards are stacked against people who try to rebuild their lives after serving sentences for felonies. They can be ineligible for welfare, public housing, food stamps, student loans, voting and driving.

Without addressing any of these issues, the Bush administration is rolling out its $104 million Violent Offenders Re-entry Initiative, which includes juvenile offenders. Everyone hopes for the initiative’s success with its targeted 160,000 ex-inmates.

But it’s hard to square this effort with the Bush administration’s plans to eliminate or cut so many other programs, such as the Labor Department’s $55 million Youth Offender Program, or the Justice Department’s $250 million Juvenile Accountability Block Grant. These policies hardly seem to be a way for the education president to build a society of opportunity or exhibit compassionate conservatism for the 1.5 million children of prisoners or their parents.