AmeriCorps and the Ivy Leaguer

Thousands of students graduating from college are turning to AmeriCorps for employment. One such graduate, an Ivy Leaguer from Dallas, is heading to Pittsburgh Steelers country to work as a food project coordinator. She says, “I want to give back, to grow and mature and find out who I am over the next year and see where it takes me professionally and personally.” No doubt the anthropology major will use and expand her knowledge by working with people in Pittsburgh, but will she be giving back?

Writing about this student, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter describes her career choice as desiring “more enrichment, not more riches.” The student says, “Some of my friends are going into finance and they’ll be making a lot of money. But I think I’ve lived a great life so far and I want to give back.”

Will the student accomplish her goal by “seeking enrichment rather than riches?”

She will likely be enriched by her experience. And, although she will not be making a lot of money, the source of her financial enrichment will be the American taxpayer. Her monthly stipend will be $900, or $10,800 for her year of service, with an opportunity to qualify for an education grant of $4,725.

In fact, there are approximately 75,000 AmeriCorps “volunteers,” and President Obama just signed a bill to increase that number to 250,000 by 2017. That’s an average of 5,000 for every state, but these volunteers come with a hefty price tag.

Is there authority in the U.S. Constitution for this program? Perhaps, if we are willing to do Constitutional gymnastics with the “spending clause” in Article I, Section 8. One Washington, D.C.-based constitutional scholar told me, “Congress doesn’t even try to justify the program.” Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ruling on South Dakota v. Dole, said, “If the notion of spending power is to be limited only by Congress’ notion of the general welfare, the reality . . . is that the Spending Clause gives ‘power to the Congress . . . subject to no restrictions save such as are self-imposed.’ This . . . was not the Framers’ plan and it is not the meaning of the Spending Clause.”

In essence, Justice O’Connor, in her dissenting opinion, said that Congress is wrong to spend money on whatever it feels is “welfare,” rather than being bound by the original intent of the Constitution. Nineteenth century thinker Frederic Bastiat probably would have agreed with O’Connor. The French political economist called this kind of spending—using government force to take from some to give to others—“legal plunder.”

We Americans and AmeriCorps volunteers should ask ourselves an important question: Although such “plunder” is technically legal, is it right? For example, is it right to take $10,800 from one person and give it to another who desires to coordinate a food project? Moreover, should Americans self-regulate and choose not to participate in such programs for fear of participating in legal plunder?

When the federal government steps out of its Constitutional role and establishes poverty relief organizations, I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”

Pittsburgh’s top five employers are government organizations or enterprises that receive a significant portion of their funding from state and federal governments. It’s into this employment mix that the Ivy Leaguer is going. One could argue that Pittsburgh has transformed from a steel town to a government town. A Pittsburgh stockbroker quipped, “We’re becoming like Washington, D.C. At least we’re recession-proof.”

Several Pittsburgh-area finance companies, however, are producing wealth. The Ivy Leaguer’s friends may want to apply to these employers for work. Is the anthropology major’s AmeriCorps employment nobler than the finance careers her friends are seeking? Last week, mutual fund giant Federated Investors reported first quarter earnings of $35.1 million, First National Bank of Pennsylvania reported $14.3 million, Northwest Bancorp reported $12.3 million, and Eureka Financial increased its earnings by 30 percent to $206,000. Ironically, the anthropology major’s friends working at firms like these will be “giving back” by force to pay for her AmeriCorps stipend.

Although I sincerely admire the young Ivy Leaguer’s aspirations, I hope she will learn that wealth-producers like Pittsburgh’s finance companies and food-giant Heinz are the City of Champions’ most successful poverty-relief program. AmeriCorps, with its questionable Constitutional moorings, funded by legal plunder, cannot match the ethical and financial results of people freely sharing the fruit of their labor with those in need.