The government-supported service organization AmeriCorps got a boost from President Obama in April, when he announced a new program to "connect more professional scientists and engineers to young students who might follow in their footsteps." According to a news release, the goal is to place hundreds of AmeriCorps members in nonprofits across the country to mobilize professionals in science, technology, engineering and math "to inspire young people to excel in STEM education."
A lofty goal, to be sure, but not one AmeriCorps is likely to serve well. Judging by the program's track record over two decades—or distinct lack of a track record in several cases—taxpayers have better ways to spend some $446 million a year.
A sort of domestic Peace Corps, AmeriCorps was created in 1993 to place adult Americans in community service with nonprofit and public agencies, especially in environmental protection, health, education and public safety. President Clinton declared that AmeriCorps is "living proof" that "if we hold hands and believe we're going into the future together, we can change anything we want to change." President George W. Bush was a big supporter, too.
But the halo on AmeriCorps exists primarily because few people have examined what the corps and its members are really up to. The grandiose achievements of AmeriCorps have always been a statistical illusion, full of impressive-looking numbers of people and causes served, and yet—as the Government Accountability Office has pointed out—often missing evidence of real accomplishment.
Consider the following recent activities:
• In April, AmeriCorps recruits in Tuscumbia, Mo., released 70 blue balloons outside the county courthouse to draw attention to the plight of abused children.
• In March, Providence, R.I., AmeriCorps members at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence hosted a hip hop/poetry competition.
• Members of a Nevada AmeriCorps program busy themselves these days by encouraging local residents to drink tap water and watch out for bears ("bear awareness").
• AmeriCorps members in Austin, Texas, hosted a trivia night in April at a local bar called Cheer Up Charlie's to whip up enthusiasm for public service.
Puppet shows that hector children about recycling are a favorite AmeriCorps pastime. Recruits to the corps also serve with Playworks—a national nonprofit that brings "safe and inclusive play to all students" in elementary schools and features "having grown-ups play alongside of children" to add "an important element of silliness and shared humanity."
In the social-service category, some AmeriCorps volunteers serve with the WithinReach program in Washington state, which says on its website that part of the service of AmeriCorps at WithinReach is to "reach out to low-income populations and help them access public benefits." Efforts include guiding Washington residents to food aid, Medicaid and subsidies for their utility bills. The Columbus, Ohio, HarvestCorps program specifically requires each AmeriCorps member to sign up at least 75 households for food stamps. Hunger Free Colorado boasts that its AmeriCorps recruits are "vital" to "increase participation" in food stamps and "to ensure [recipients] do not fall off of the programs once enrolled." AmeriCorps also bankrolls FoodCorps in locales known as "high-obesity communities" to plant school gardens and urge people to reform their diets.
In addition to serving with organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Habitat for Humanity, many AmeriCorps recruits also serve on the staffs of advocacy groups. The Presbyterian Hunger Project has eight AmeriCorps members for "supporting community-driven solutions to injustices in the food system, locally and nationally."
During the Clinton era, scandals erupted after AmeriCorps bankrolled the left-wing community-organizing group Acorn and projects that engaged in blatant political campaigning. Federal law bans using tax dollars for advocacy. In 2011, a report prepared by auditors in the office of the inspector general with oversight of AmeriCorps criticized its management for policies that "leave no meaningful recourse against a sponsor that misuses [AmeriCorps] personnel."
According to President Obama, AmeriCorps embodies "the best of our nation's history, diversity and commitment to service." But Nicole Patterson, winner of a Congressional Bronze Medal for community service, was not impressed with her AmeriCorps experience. Venting online in 2011, she wrote: "I spent six weeks playing Scrabble and kickball for America. I spent another two months sitting in a tool shed for America. We annoyed more people than we ever helped."
A 2011 audit found that AmeriCorps members in a large program run by the New York City Mayor's Office "were told to work from home with no substantial assignments."
For most of Mr. Obama's first term and until last year, AmeriCorps went unsupervised by a permanent inspector general at its oversight agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service. In June 2009, the administration fired IG Gerald Walpin after Mr. Walpin refused to back down from a report condemning a prominent Obama supporter, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, for misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in AmeriCorps grants for his St. HOPE Academy. Mr. Walpin also stirred hostility with a report showing that the AmeriCorps role in one of its largest programs—the Teaching Fellows program at the City University of New York—failed to produce any positive results.
AmeriCorps notes that "more than 800,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1 billion hours in service across America" since 1994. The organization currently counts some 80,000 members, who receive an annual stipend or education award or both—worth more than $15,000—and free health care.
No doubt they have done much good over the years. This spring alone, AmeriCorps members helped build levees in the flooded Midwest and lent a hand in Oklahoma after a rash of devastating tornadoes struck. It must be said, though, that such work after a natural disaster would be performed in any case.
When it comes to measuring results, however, the program has always relied on Soviet-style accounting—adding up labor inputs and proclaiming victory. The Government Accountability Office criticized AmeriCorps in 2000 for this reason and rapped the organization again in 2010 for using performance measures that "do not demonstrate results" and are "poorly aligned" with stated goals. The GAO warned that the self-reported data from grant recipients was unverified and unreliable.
The current inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Deborah Jeffrey, warned in a report in April that AmeriCorps' analyses of its wrongful payments problem routinely ignore "how grantees actually spend the funds." It is not clear how much more we will learn, though. In 2012, Congress slashed the annual budget for the inspector general's office in half, to $4 million, forcing the layoff of half of its 10 auditors and most of the eight investigators, Ms. Jeffrey says.
Politicians of both parties have routinely waved through support for AmeriCorps. Who wants to come out against a group that so easily lends itself to feel-good oratory? What's often forgotten is that when the government runs a "volunteer" organization, Washington politicians are volunteering taxpayer dollars.
Mr. Bovard is the author, most recently, of the e-book memoir "Public Policy Hooligan."