March 29, 2011; Source: U.S. News and World Report | One of the anomalous policy positions of the Bush Administration was its defense of AmeriCorps and other national service programs, particularly when the Administration recruited John Bridgeland to head a new post-9/11 program called the Freedom Corps. The Freedom Corps didn’t generate the expected traction, but Bridgeland became one of the nation’s foremost advocates of national service.

In this U.S. News and World Report opinion piece, Bridgeland defends National Service programs such as AmeriCorps using traditional conservative Republican language. “National service is a smart investment because it relies on millions of citizens – not bureaucracies – to solve problems.” He continues, “The crisis in the nonprofit sector is severe and citizens can help fill the gaps through national and community service efforts.”

To make the argument concrete, Bridgeland mentions name-brand nonprofit users of AmeriCorps members such as Habitat for Humanity, City Year, and Teach for America. Bridgeland goes fiscal when he asserts that “national service is a good deal for the taxpayer – leveraging more than $800 million annually in outside funds from businesses and philanthropy . . . not big government programs . . . [at a] cost to the federal budget [that] is a rounding error.”

He goes historic linking national service to the service calls of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Whether these arguments are strong or specious, Bridgeland wanders into an argument that he has used before, that volunteerism constitutes “an economic boost at a time when our country needs one . . . putting the unemployed into productive work for a year to help address the nation's needs.”

We have argued here and elsewhere for a better structured and better paid AmeriCorps. It is hard to imagine how paying less than the living wage, sometimes less than the minimum wage equates to a economic boon for the millions of AmeriCorps participants, or a benefit to nonprofits who become seen as very low-wage employment vehicles for people with big hearts.—Rick Cohen