AmeriCorps Funding Is on the Congressional Chopping Block

Budget cutters on Capitol Hill are aiming their scissors at AmeriCorps, which was created in 1993 when President Bill Clinton signed into law the National Community Service Trust Act. With the stroke of a pen, Clinton created the Corporation for National and Community Service and brought domestic community service programs under a single umbrella organization.  This legislation built on the first National Service Act signed by President H.W. Bush in 1990 as part of his “Points of Light” campaign.  AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs that engage Americans in a year of public service to meet the nation’s needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment.

Writing in The New Republic, former AmeriCorps member Tiffany Stanley says “Now, 17 years after its creation, AmeriCorps is on the chopping block.  The most recent continuing resolution passed by the House would cut all federal funding for the agency that oversees the program, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), effectively wiping out AmeriCorps.  Ending the program would not only eliminate jobs for the 85,000 individuals who serve each year through AmeriCorps, it would also significantly burden organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America (TFA) and City Year that depend on AmeriCorps participants for their cost-effective labor.”

“This is potentially a devastating disaster, a civic tsunami,” said Karen Baker, California state Cabinet secretary for service and volunteering.  AmeriCorps is one of many programs targeted for cuts by the House of Representatives’ new Republican majority, which campaigned on a promise to slash spending in Washington.  The House’s conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, disagrees with the living stipends and education awards offered to AmeriCorps members.  “With the federal budget going $4.3 trillion — plus interest -=-into the red in just the last three years, paying people to ‘volunteer’ is not an appropriate use of taxpayer money,” caucus spokesman Brian Straessle wrote.  A House of Representatives spending bill approved in February cuts $1.15 billion for the Corporation for National and Community Service, effectively shutting down the federal agency that operates AmeriCorps.

According to Stanley, AmeriCorps had much bipartisan support throughout its history.  “Perhaps the most objectionable element of the proposal is that many of the programs that AmeriCorps funds are exactly the kind that so-called compassionate conservatives are supposed to support,” she writes.  “Rather than offering a government hand-out, AmeriCorps-backed programs like Habitat for Humanity which require low-income recipients to work alongside volunteers.  (As Newt Gingrich once wrote:  ‘I am proud to work with Habitat for Humanity, which helps poor people build their own homes.’)  And, over the years, AmeriCorps’ efficacy has won over a host of conservatives, including John McCain and Colin Powell.”

Exactly what do AmeriCorps members do?  Stanley notes that “Corps members spend a year or two in the most blighted neighborhoods in America, serving in non-profits, social service agencies and community- and faith-based organizations.  They teach in schools, clean up parks, create affordable housing, and respond to natural disasters.  Last year, for example, 650 AmeriCorps members serving with Habitat for Humanity helped manage 200,000 volunteers, completing 3,500 houses.”

Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY), the House Appropriations Chair, claims the cuts are necessary and will “weed out excessive, unnecessary and wasteful spending, making tough choices to prioritize programs based on their effectiveness.”  Considering that AmeriCorps attracts more than $800 million annually from private and non-federal resources, Stanley says that its proven results and sound funding hardly makes it “excessive” or “wasteful.”

A Boston Globe editorial also questions cutting the AmeriCorps program.  “Beyond that, the national service program has become an incubator for initiatives — in areas ranging from housing to urban education –promising a more entrepreneurial, participatory approach to addressing public needs.  This kind of innovation should appeal to budget-conscious lawmakers, even if it involves some up-front expense.  The national service agency mobilizes more than five million Americans — mostly unpaid volunteers — who fan out into schools, food banks, senior developments, homeless shelters, and other areas in need of experienced hands.  Some Republicans look askance at the modest stipends offered by some of the service programs.  AmeriCorps members, for example, scrape by on about $12,000 in living expenses during their year of service.  What Republicans ignore is that each AmeriCorps member is expected to recruit 30 or more unpaid volunteers.  And that the commitment to public service lasts long after the stipend disappears.  Thankfully, many senior Republicans, including former President George W. Bush, have stepped forward to defend it as a means of leveraging Americans’ community spirit.  Even in a time of deficits, when all acknowledge that some worthy programs will have to be cut, the agency looks completely out of place on the chopping block.”