President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address will always best be remembered for his designation of certain intransigent nations as forming an “axis of evil.” But the president also hearkened back in that speech to his campaign rhetoric of compassionate conservatism with a call for all Americans to commit 4,000 hours – two full years of work – to community service. Yet Americorps, a volunteer program Bush vowed to expand in his 2002 speech, is slated for cuts under the president’s current proposed budget.
In this year’s State of the Union address, Bush spoke of his intention to eliminate 140 federal programs. One of those, apparently, is the Americorps National Civilian Community Corps. Under the president’s budget, funding for this program – which enables 18- to 24-year-olds to work full-time on service projects while based at one of five residential campuses – will be cut by over 80 percent as the program is phased out. This is not the first time the administration has targeted volunteer programs; the president’s 2003 budget initially called for a 57-percent cut to all Americorps programs.
The administration, in a recent review by the Office of Management and Budget, stated that the per-participant cost of the residential program is too great compared to other, nonresidential Americorps programs. As The Washington Post reported, the OMB review also criticized the program for an insufficient focus on disaster relief; most of its volunteer work went toward “tutoring children, building trails for national parks and building houses for low-income families” – all efforts clearly not worthy of support for this administration.
By providing housing for its volunteers, the NCCC program allows young people who might otherwise be financially unable to live away from home to volunteer where their services are needed. But the administration is perhaps right to point out that a residential program may not be the most efficient use of Americorps dollars.
If the administration were concerned with making sure each taxpayer dollar going to Americorps supported as many volunteer hours as possible, it could have shifted the NCCC funding to other Americorps programs. Instead, Bush’s budget simply eliminates the funding. Indeed, the Corporation for National and Community Service – the agency that runs a variety of federal volunteer programs including Americorps – is seeing a 5.4-percent cut to its overall funding.
These cuts to volunteer programs won’t even cover one-tenth of one percent of the $72.4 billion the administration recently sought for its ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps it was too optimistic to expect Bush to live up to his pledges in his 2002 State of the Union address. Bush might be trying, in his own way, to address the long-standing foreign policy challenges he exacerbated with his remarks about the axis of evil. But this is also the same leader who announced in this year’s State of the Union a goal to cut by 75 percent the nation’s petroleum imports from the Middle East by 2025 – only to have his own energy secretary dismiss the idea as “purely an example” that wasn’t meant literally just a day after the speech. Whatever else one can say about the Americorps cuts, at least it’s taken a few years for the president to reverse his course on one of the few compassionate aspects of his conservatism.