Response to Michelle Malkin: AmeriCorps Supports Conservative Values, Too

By / 4.15.2011

Self-styled conservative pundit Michelle Malkin just published a column on National Review Online that places politics over facts to slam an innovative public/private, faith-based/secular partnership that is effectively fighting domestic hunger across the United States.

She argues that it is wrong to use participants in the AmeriCorps national service program to help low-income families, children, and seniors obtain food stamps benefits, which she derides as “welfare.” Yet Malkin purposely omits key facts that would help the public understand that many components of both the AmeriCorps Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the current name for what used to be called the Food Stamp Program – advance conservative principles.

Let’s start with the idea of national service, which engages Americans in domestic community service, usually through non-governmental nonprofit groups. Participants receive a small living stipend, but don’t receive a penny unless they work hard. If they successfully complete a full term of service, they receive an educational scholarship, but again, only if they do the work and do it well. It is no wonder then that, in the late 1980’s, when the Democratic Leadership Council and the Progressive Policy Institute (two organizations generally affiliated with the conservative/moderate wing of the Democratic Party and for whom I worked) proposed the idea that would become AmeriCorps, it was traditional liberals who were the staunchest opponents of the program, saying it was wrong to tie government benefits to work requirements.

In 1990, arch-conservative William F. Buckley, the founder of the National Review, wrote an entire book (Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country) promoting a government-funded system of national service, in which most of the money would be controlled by the states and participants would be provided a small living allowance. That’s exactly how AmeriCorps works today. Buckley went as far as to say that Americans who chose not to give back to their country by serving in such a program would be “contemptuous of their heritage and ungrateful.” He predicted that most conservatives would eventually embrace the idea because a “natural conservative sense of duty and of reverence for tradition will gradually win over most conservatives.”

It is ironic indeed that an idea championed by conservatives and derided by liberals is now lambasted as some sort of so-called example of liberalism run amuck.

In reality, most AmeriCorps funding decisions are made by states. Conservatives who are consistent about supporting federalism should embrace this program. All AmeriCorps benefits are made contingent upon work. Conservatives who are consistent in their claim that work should be the centerpiece of social policy should herald AmeriCorps as a best practice.

The most egregious misinformation in the Malkin piece is her implication that the national AmeriCorps benefits outreach program she is slamming is managed directly by the federal government and funded only by the federal government. It is not. In fact, it is run by the organization I manage, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, a 501(c)3 nonprofit group, in conjunction with nonprofit groups and faith-based organizations around the country. (For the record, I am writing this response using non-governmental funds.) While most of the funding is federal, significant matching funds have been provided by the Walmart Foundation and the Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City. Conservatives who are consistent in their desire to buttress non-government entities should hold up AmeriCorps as a shining example.

Malkin derides religious organizations working with the government on SNAP outreach as “left wing,” but the reality is that our AmeriCorps outreach program is working with mainstream Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups. Our partners include the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Baylor University, and the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. Conservatives who are consistent in their support for faith-based partnerships should run to the hilltops to praise this program.

Moreover, it’s absurd to claim that helping our hungry neighbors, including seniors and children, obtain food is somehow “left wing.” Given that mandates to do so are central commandments of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an, I would think that self-proclaimed religious people, such as Malkin, should promote, not deride, such efforts. After all, it was Jesus Christ himself (in Matthew 25) who said that helping the poor and hungry obtain food was just as holy as feeding the Lord.

I must also point out that, in some fundamental ways, the SNAP program is a conservative approach to fighting hunger. SNAP benefits are, first and foremost, wage supports, helping make low-income work a better way to support a family than receiving cash welfare. In fact, people who have left welfare are less likely to return if they receive SNAP. That is why many conservative governors have promoted SNAP access even as they continue to reduce their welfare rolls. Even President George W. Bush’s Administration made it clear that SNAP was a work support, not welfare. In fact, the Bush Administration’s USDA Under Secretary Eric Bost once said, “I assure you, food stamps is not welfare.” Yet because the term “welfare” sounds so much more nefarious than the accurate term “nutrition assistance,” Malkin uses it over and over again to inflame her audience.

SNAP is the ultimate voucher program, allowing families to use government funds to shop at private stores. Unlike truly liberal countries like India or Brazil where government food programs direct low-income families to government-run food warehouses, SNAP is now distributed entirely through the U.S. private enterprise system. Every government dollar spent by taxpayers on SNAP creates 1.8 dollars in private economic activity. Conservatives who are consistent in their support of vouchers should highlight the effectiveness of SNAP.

To be sure, AmeriCorps also bolsters the traditional liberal goals of increasing economic opportunity and expanding educational access. But there is no question that it also supports the traditional conservative goals of rewarding work and strengthening communities.

Likewise, outreach to increase SNAP usage advances the traditional liberal goal of reducing poverty. But there is no doubt that it also reinforces the traditional conservative goal of strengthening families.

If we want to live in a country that exists in a state of perpetual political warfare – in which we automatically denounce anything supported by our political opponents – then it makes sense for some people to reflexively oppose AmeriCorps and SNAP just because their opponents support them.

But if we want to live in country where Americans come together to solve major problems based on shared values – as the vast majority of Americans do – then we should all embrace efforts such as AmeriCorps. Our national service program, fighting hunger with a mix of federal and private funds, working with both secular and religious non-profit groups, represents the best of middle-of-the road American tradition. It deserves all Americans’ consistent support.

cross-posted from New York City Coalition Against Hunger