AmeriCorps on Budget Chopping Block

After years of attacks from fiscal conservatives and underwhelming progress reports, the federal AmeriCorps service program has quietly taken its place on the budget chopping block and stands to lose its full-time civilian corps, most of which is currently serving in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

The Bush administration has proposed cutting AmeriCorps' National Civilian Community Corps — a program in which 18-24 year olds live in group residences for training before going out to perform service projects — from $27 million to $5 million in fiscal year 2007, with the intent of shutting it down altogether. The decision has drawn fire from NCCC alumni as well as AmeriCorps' congressional supporters.

"[The cuts] baffle me, it doesn't make sense politically, it doesn't make sense at all," said P.J D'Amico, who served in the NCCC in 1993 and now heads AmeriCorps Alums, representing the approximately 400,000 people who have served in AmeriCorps programs since it was established by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

"We can't let it be cut," said Kate Becker, who worked as a NCCC program director for five years. "They're just a really powerful group of people. It's going to have a ripple effect."

But a recent report by the White House Office of Budget and Management found that the NCCC is too costly, and its programs are redundant and more expensive than other federal, state and local volunteer programs available.

"The president's budget rallies the armies of compassion by supporting key national service programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, while moving away from costly and ineffective programs like NCCC," said OMB spokesman Alex Conant.

"We have to look at whether or not we're providing the most help in the most efficient way and I think the numbers speak for themselves," he said.

AmeriCorps is run under the Corporation for National and Community Service. Aside from the NCCC, AmeriCorps also has programs including VISTA — of which 6,000 volunteers are in 1,100 local programs — and AmeriCorps State and National, which provide millions of dollars in grants each year to organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to recruit and supervise AmeriCorps members.

In 2003, AmeriCorps experienced a $64 million budget deficit. The OMB revealed that AmeriCorps had recruited far beyond the capped enrollment of 50,000 volunteers. AmeriCorps blamed — or credited — the shortfall, in part, on enthusiastic volunteerism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

At the time, critics blasted the program for its sloppy accounting and inefficiencies and accused the management of over-recruiting deliberately, knowing it would eventually get the money. The program, in fact, was given additional resources to recruit to 55,000 members.

According to AmeriCorps officials, since its inception, the NCCC has had 11,139 members, who have completed 6,249 projects valued at $323 million. It has also helped to build or reconstruct 5,500 homes, tutor 319,000 students and assisted 98,000 homeless people.

NCCC members begin by getting trained in everything from tutoring children to disaster relief at one of five designated college campuses across the country. Then, they are put to work for successive six- to eight-week projects in the region.

Currently, the NCCC engages about 1,100 volunteers who get paid a stipend of about $4,000 for a 10-month commitment and an education voucher for about $4,600 when they finish. AmeriCorps officials and alumni say 80 percent of the NCCC has been in the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina hit in August.

"It's fair to say there are no less than 500 members in the Gulf Coast … who are directed to disaster response on any given day," said D'Amico.

"NCCC people were there immediately — that's what they were trained to do," he said. "Round-the-clock relief."

Conant noted that NCCC workers are among 13,000 volunteers representing AmeriCorps programs on the Gulf Coast. The cost to the government for each individual working for NCCC equals $27,859, he said.

Though the program was a Clinton administration pet, President Bush has received criticism for his previous backing of AmeriCorps. The president has supported AmeriCorps since his campaign for president in 2000, using it as an example of his "compassionate conservatism" ideal.

But fiscal conservatives say it is a government boondoggle that should never have been created.

"Bush was far more interested in exploiting [AmeriCorps] to showcase his own benevolence so he sharply expanded its membership rolls and volunteers," wrote James Bovard, an expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of the 2004 book, "The Bush Betrayal."

"From my perspective, its been a boondoggle, and it will always be a boondoggle when you are rounding up people and paying them for doing good deeds," Bovard told "Bush's cuts are a nice gesture, only if it's a step towards abolishing the entire program."

"We thought AmeriCorps was always expensive," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which applauds Bush for putting the brakes on the NCCC. "I give the administration credit for evaluating a program and proposing its termination."

But alumni and advocates say the NCCC is like the "Special Forces" of AmeriCorps, and similar to the Peace Corps, which puts volunteers on a career path for a lifetime of public service.

"There has been this huge surge in people wanting to serve, especially among young people, particularly after 9/11 and Katrina. ... Now is not the time to be cutting it," said AnnMaura Connolly, vice president for Voices for National Service , a non-profit advocacy group for preserving AmeriCorps funding.

Select members of Congress are also rallying behind the NCCC.

Republican Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Tom Osborne of Nebraska and Democratic Reps. David Price of North Carolina and Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, all members of the National Service Congressional Caucus, sent letters to colleagues and to the House Appropriations Committee leadership March 9 to urge the preservation of the program.

"The NCCC is a trained force that can be immediately deployed. The service NCCC members provided to (Katrina) evacuees was invaluable, and so is the NCCC," reads the letter to the committee. "If additional steps must be taken to enhance and reform the NCCC, we look forward to working with the [Corporation for National and Community Service] to make the necessary changes."

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."