Among the Republican Study Committee, or RSC’s many proposed spending cuts is elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service, or CNCS, and its programs such as AmeriCorps. While it is unlikely the RSC’s proposal could pass the Senate or survive the president’s veto, this eagerness to cut national service provides an opportunity to explain why continued investment in these programs is so important.
States and cities are facing record budget shortfalls and they are poised to make dramatic cutbacks in public education, health care, and other needed services. A recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that at least 46 states and the District of Columbia have made cuts since 2008 that affect vulnerable citizens. Thirty-one have cut health care, 35 have cut K-12 education, and 30 have cut services to the elderly and disabled. Now more than ever programs such as AmeriCorps are providing vital services to fill in the gaps as states and cities make tough choices and cut the services that so many people depend upon.
AmeriCorps members serve in schools and health clinics across the country, restore the natural environment in state parks, and help communities prepare for emergencies so damages to life and property are minimized. Senior Corps members work with disadvantaged children to provide the extra tutoring and support that school systems cannot afford. And the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps mobilizes teams of members to respond quickly and effectively to natural disasters that include hurricanes, floods, and forest fires. All around the country, national service members are working day in and day out to supply communities with services that would otherwise not be provided.
Beyond their role in direct service provision, national service members leverage thousands of additional volunteers each year. The 2010 Volunteering in America survey demonstrated the number of volunteers in the United States continues to increase. We should be encouraged by the fact that so many Americans want to volunteer in their communities. But we must also recognize that a good volunteer experience depends on high-quality volunteer management. AmeriCorps members are trained to provide volunteers with ways to successfully contribute, whether that is building homes, cleaning up after a storm, or painting murals in long-neglected schools.
Further, the experience of serving has a transformational effect on those who serve and on our country as a whole. Dedicating a year or two to national service opens members’ eyes to the many problems in our country and allows them to see how it is possible to fix those problems, one child or one building at a time. Those lessons become the lenses through which members view the world. Research shows AmeriCorps members are more likely than their peers to continue to volunteer in the future and to pursue careers in public service.
Finally—and some would perhaps say most importantly—national service exposes members to communities and people they might otherwise never encounter. These programs allow Americans from vastly different backgrounds to work together for a common purpose. In an era marked by intense political polarization and vitriolic rhetoric, national service provides a unifying force that transcends ideology. Though our leaders may call for a return to civility, it is national service members who are putting these words into practice each and every day.
We must address the budget deficit and bring our national debt under control. But the RSC’s proposal to eliminate CNCS programs is a cut we cannot afford to make. National service programs are providing critical services to communities across the nation—services that will be in even greater demand as the effects of the recession continue to make their way through state budgets. Our country faces difficult choices for years to come but national service is clearly a smart investment for our citizens and for our future.
Diana Epstein is an Education Policy Analyst at American Progress.