Putting the unemployed to work for AmeriCorps — and how to pay for it

But the situation is far worse when you break it down into segments of the population. African-American unemployment is at least 15.4 percent — more than 60 percent higher than among white males.

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So what to do? The president’s stimulus package may have resulted in the unemployment figure being lower than would otherwise be the case.

That’s a difficult case to prove. But we need some new ideas to create new jobs — immediately. The human tragedies of pervasive unemployment throughout our country cannot wait the one to two years some say it will take before the stimulus programs fully kick in and start creating millions of new jobs.

So here’s my idea: Every able-bodied person who receives unemployment compensation should be required to volunteer part-time for AmeriCorps, the American public service program begun by President Bill Clinton in 1993. (In April 2009, President Barack Obama signed legislation tripling the appropriation for AmeriCorps to its current total of $5.7 billion over eight years.) I say part-time because they need at least one day a week to go job-hunting, a requirement in order to continue to receive unemployment benefits. I propose this be a requirement because it’s only fair for recipients of unemployment payments to give back to the community. Moreover, for most it will be a positive experience — getting them out of the house and increasing feelings of self–worth.

By using AmeriCorps as the structure to absorb these new workers and put them to work immediately, no new bureaucracy need be created. And we know these are not “make-work” jobs but real contributions to the public good, as AmeriCorps has proven over the years.

For example, right now, AmeriCorps workers are mentoring and tutoring children living in poverty, caring for the elderly, cleaning up neighborhoods and national forests, repairing old houses, working in hospitals and emergency rooms, teaching computer skills, cleaning up streets in inner-city neighborhoods, working in national parks on conservation and other environmental projects and supplementing skilled workers on current roads, bridges and public-utilities construction and rehabilitation projects.

This is not meant to be a permanent public works program. It is meant to be temporary, until the private sector rebounds from the near-total disaster of last year’s meltdown.

How to finance? I don’t know the exact cost required — I’ll leave the Congressional Budget Office or other budget experts to figure that out — but I’ll take a stab at three possible sources of financing.

First, use at least some of the funds already being paid for unemployment compensation (financed by an eight-tenths-of-1-percent payment by employers to the IRS, and administered by the states).

Second, add new money diverted from the currently funded stimulus program — again, specifically paid to AmeriCorps and required to be used to hire new people from the ranks of the unemployed. .

Third, if necessary, add a temporary, special surtax — for example, 1 percent for those earning more than $100,000 a year, 2 percent between $250,000 and $500,000 and 3 percent above $500,000. This would result, roughly at an average marginal rate of 40 percent, of a per-person incremental cost of $400, $800 and $1,200 per person per year, respectively. The surtax would be “sunsetted” and would therefore need to be renewed each year. As unemployment drops, the surtax would be phased out entirely, say at 5 percent or lower.

But, again, this will be a new kind of tax — let’s call it a targeted tax — with proceeds only allowed to go directly into a trust account, with AmeriCorps as trustee, to be used only to create brand-new AmeriCorps jobs from the ranks of the unemployed — in short, not allowed under the law to be diverted to pay for $1,000 toilet seats or bridges to nowhere.

OK, good readers of this column: That’s my idea. I am sure there are plenty of ways to poke holes in it, especially for some conservatives who object to any increase in taxes, period. But my arguments to them: The amounts are small relative to income, it is sunsetted annually, it is targeted and proceeds cannot be diverted for pork.

But one thing I know about this idea: If enacted, it will immediately or nearly immediately get people working and doing good at the same time, much as occurred when FDR between 1933 and ’35 created the WPA, the CCC and other emergency job “relief” programs. Except FDR didn’t have the benefit of an existing and much-praised organization already in place such as AmeriCorps.

Anyone have a better idea for immediate job creation for the public good without increasing the deficit?

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.