We are in the midst of AmeriCorps Week, which takes place from March 9 to March 17. It is a time for the country to celebrate the remarkable impact of the iconic federal community-service organization that—over the course of the past 20 years—has engaged tens of thousands of corps members in efforts to construct affordable housing, guide and mentor students in underperforming schools, feed hungry Americans, and tackle countless other pressing challenges facing communities across the nation. So it is more than a bit ironic that as we celebrate the work of AmeriCorps, budget fights in Washington, D.C.—highlighted by the release of the House Republican budget on Tuesday and the recent allowance of the sequester—threaten the program and put at risk the creative approaches that it employs to better the lives of countless Americans and their families.
Sequestration means devastating cuts for national service—4,200 AmeriCorps positions, which represent 4.3 million hours of critical service, will be cut over time. These cuts are in addition to the $100 million in cuts that occurred between 2010 and 2012. Thus, the stakes are high as President Barack Obama and Congress continue to wrangle over the budget and efforts to reduce the deficit.
As our leaders seek to balance the nation’s spending priorities, the value of national service remains clear. In the 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed legislation creating the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps, the corporation’s flagship service program, has supported 800,000 service members, 1 billion hours of volunteer service, 4 million volunteers, and $2.4 billion in education aid for service members.
But if AmeriCorps is to survive and thrive going forward, creative strategies must be devised to ensure the future of national service. Recent CAP publications make the case for government-agency investment in service. The report “Service as a Strategy” outlines several reasons why national service is a viable strategy to help move a diverse number of government programs toward reaching their goals, and it offers approaches for public agencies to model when launching their own service programs. A chief example is the recently launched FEMA Corps, which uses resources from both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Corporation for National Service to fund emergency-response service workers who are playing a key role in recovery efforts from tragedies such as Hurricane Sandy.
In “The Great Public Service Talent Search,” CAP outlines a course for building upon the existing potential of service to fulfill the talent needs of the public-service field—one that will ultimately improve the outcomes that service agencies achieve. Through commitments of human and financial capital, AmeriCorps already boosts the talent-development capacity of nonprofits across the United States. Many AmeriCorps alumni continue their civic engagement after participating in the program, through careers in government and the nonprofit sector and as social entrepreneurs representing the next generation of public servants. This commitment could be harnessed even more strategically.
Consider just one example: To groom future leaders in the fight against hunger, Joel Berg, CAP Senior Fellow and the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, launched the Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and AmeriCorps VISTA. The program provides young people with an opportunity to lend their skills to food pantries, soup kitchens, and anti-hunger agencies across the country through technical assistance and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, outreach. In 2012 corps members in this program recruited 1,611 volunteers and raised $3,553,176 in grants and $31,920 in charitable giving. Like the broader AmeriCorps program, the Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps successfully leverages private-public partnerships and sustains its anti-hunger efforts through matching funds from the Walmart Foundation. Not only do efforts such as the Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps advance the goal of talent development, but they are also improving program outcomes in the present as well as in the future, as some graduates of the program consider future anti-hunger work.
AmeriCorps continues to evolve to meet the needs of communities and the nation. The short-term investment in volunteer service pays huge returns, building careers, supporting social innovation, and improving people and communities. National-service programs deliver untold societal benefits, and they deserve greater attention in public policy and budget fights. We need to ensure that the potential of AmeriCorps is maximized and that the program is given the chance to thrive for another 20 years and beyond.
Zach Murray is a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Poverty and Prosperity program and Progress 2050 project at the Center for American Progress.