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November 10, 2011 12:34 PM The Hidden AmeriCorps and Media Elites

By Ryan Cooper

AmeriCorps, as noted before here, is the largest national service organization in the United States outside the military. More than 80,000 people every year do service work in this program across the country for a pittance. Its support has historically been broad-based and bipartisan, with one consistent complaint. Despite the fact that today nearly three times the number of people have served in AmeriCorps than the Peace Corps, the latter is still far more well-known. As John McCain noted in the Monthly in 2001, the program’s profile is too low:

But for all its concrete achievements, AmeriCorps has a fundamental flaw: In its seven years of existence, it has barely stirred the nation’s imagination. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps to make good on his famous challenge to “[a]sk not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country.” Since then, more than 162,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps, and the vast majority of Americans today have heard of the organization. By contrast, more than 200,000 Americans have served in AmeriCorps, yet two out of three Americans say they have never heard of the program.

There is a good reason for this; the program was designed to be as decentralized as possible, which is a large part of its success. Many AmeriCorps workers are distributed to already-existing NGOs and other service organizations where instead of doing grunt-level work, they recruit and manage actual volunteers, giving those organizations the needed logistical backbone operate much more effectively—as McCain notes, each AmeriCorps member generates on average nine additional volunteers. Most of the money is put in the hands of state governors, who get to decide (within reason) which organizations get it.

All this creates broad-based, bipartisan political support, but at the expense of a high national profile. It is of a piece with what Suzanne Mettler calls the “submerged state, ” where beneficiaries of a government program often do not realize they are beneficiaries—according to McCain, even some AmeriCorps members do not realize they are working for the government.

There was a glaring example of this lack of recognition recently. Tom Brokaw just wrote a book called The Time of Our Lives, a goodly slice of which was devoted to national service, and in it did not once mention the AmeriCorps program. In an interview with Andrea Mitchell promoting said book, he mentioned that perhaps the country needs some kind of rapid response team to deal with natural disasters, specifically mentioning the tornadoes that recently hit Joplin, Missouri. The truth, of course, is that AmeriCorps members were actually there helping to clean up and rebuild after that tornado outbreak.

On one level, Brokaw should know better. Surely part of the reason AmeriCorps is so low-profile is that he and other elites who claim to be very supportive of national service can’t be bothered to do some cursory research.

But the government should be doing a lot more as well. One can imagine several ways to build AmeriCorps’ public profile, like McCain’s idea for a highly visible AmeriCorps flagship program, or even just a public service announcement featuring the president, as JFK provided for the Peace Corps. AmeriCorps ought to permeate the national atmosphere to such a degree that by default it forms the backdrop of any discussion of national service, so even Tom Brokaw couldn’t possibly overlook it.

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Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

Comments

  • jmano on November 19, 2011 10:21 AM:

    I hope no one is too surprised at Brokaw's oversight. This has been his manner for most of his career—ignore the complex in order to sell the public on his Walter Cronkite Light persona. Go back and read a few of the things he supposedly wrote himself, his comments on 9/11, or, better yet, his autobiography (which someone bullied me into reading). His M/O has always been, "Noun, verb, platitude." Lay off the facts; they can only get you in trouble with an adoring public. This approach has served him well. if you don't believe me, read Charles Pierce on TB.

  • square1 on November 19, 2011 11:33 AM:

    I think that the decentralized nature explains a lot. It makes the program a lot less visible.

    But there is another reason that AmeriCorps is low profile: The Third-Way Democrats who dominate the Democratic Party tend to be embarrassed about such old school liberal programs that smack of "big government". So you aren't going to hear too many proud defenses from the biggest voices in the party.

    No doubt Third-Way Democrats would prefer some "public-private partnerships" where private corporations get a tax cut to organize teams of volunteers to assist in public works. You know, incentivize the private sector to care about people.

  • golack on November 19, 2011 12:04 PM:

    A PSA would be good, something along the lines of "AmeriCares helping your community" showing how it helps the local charities....But a PSA with Obama would kill it--literally every Republican governor would be under pressure to refuse to take those funds...Truly a sad state of affairs...

  • CalGal on November 19, 2011 1:26 PM:

    Failed reporting from a former network anchor? I'm shocked, shocked I tell you.