Clinton's civilian corps gets rough ride

September 8, 1995

United States politics being an ugly game, it was predictable that Congress Republicans should get accountants to pick apart Bill Clinton's pet AmeriCorps programme.

Under the programme, launched by the Clinton administration last year, students can spend a year doing good works around the US. They earn a subsistence wage and are rewarded with a $5,000 voucher towards college fees or training.

AmeriCorps was the civilian answer to nostalgia for military service as a patriotic leveller. Some 20,000 volunteers 17 years and over signed up to do everything from saving Pacific salmon runs to clearing crack dealers from inner cities.

But, wielding a new financial report prepared by the government's General Accounting Office, Republican senator Charles Grassley claims AmeriCorps' "volunteers" cost $20,000 or more each.

The AmeriCorps project was publicly promised by the incoming President Clinton in 1992. It was one of his few promises implemented, at a cost of $250 million in its first year.

Republicans voted to kill the programme by cutting all funding. But the White House promised to keep AmeriCorps alive, demanding $619 million for 1996.

The GAO report confirms that the effort to turn the energies of college-age Americans to social problems, originally backed by both parties, will be a political pawn in the run-up to the 1996 elections.

Eli Segal, who runs the AmeriCorps Corporation for National and Community Service, estimated the cost per participant this year at nearly $19,000, though the corporation has given much lower estimates in the past, it is reported.

The GAO said that "total resources" used for each AmeriCorps participant averaged closer to $26,500, with only $2,000 in private sector contributions and the rest in subsidies from federal and local governments. The services of "volunteers" actually cost nearly $20 an hour, it said.

Mr Segal's office said the GAO auditors should not have added the cost of using existing government resources like main frame computers after office hours, and had underestimated the hours that AmeriCorps members work along with others they recruit to help.

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