Spare service programs from budget ax

Now more than ever, feds must invest in opportunities to serve

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S FISCAL 2018 budget eliminates all funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent organization of flagship national service programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.

As two former chairs of the community service corporation, representing different political parties, we call on the White House and Congress to consider the broad benefits of these vital programs to our young people, our communities, our economy, and our civic health.

In a commencement address at San Diego State College in June 1963, President John F. Kennedy encouraged the graduates to turn their talents to the greater good, to “render on the community level, or on the state level, or on the national level, or the international level a contribution to the maintenance of freedom and peace and the security of our country and those associated with it in a most critical time.”

Inspiring though his words undoubtedly were to the young people before him, President Kennedy recognized that inspiration is a necessary but not sufficient condition to promote widespread national service. The government has a role beyond rhetoric to invest in and facilitate opportunities to serve. And, in the intervening years, leaders of both parties have understood that providing avenues to meaningful service can support the needs of a changing nation, aligning young people with communities that deserve help.

Indeed, long-standing support for programs such as AmeriCorps has stood on two pillars: providing valuable opportunities for young people to develop leadership skills and prepare for careers, and building the capacity and impact of under-resourced non-profit organizations in communities of all types.

It is also true that support for national service programs has reflected the ideological perspective of the occupant of the Oval Office, with Democrat and Republican administrations bringing different approaches. Former President George W. Bush’s administration emphasized more local control over decision-making, more opportunities for veterans and faith-based organizations, and expansion of service programs to emergency response. Former President Barack Obama developed new partnerships and pathways from service to work, encouraging private sector employers and federal government agencies to incentivize the recruitment and hiring of individuals who had served in AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.

But even with variations in implementation, AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps volunteers have always served without regard to politics across the country. They go where they are needed. Since its founding in 1994, more than 1 million Americans have served in AmeriCorps in rural communities, small towns, and large cities. Today, they are running after-school tutoring programs, helping communities recover from natural disasters, and even providing tax preparation help to low-income families. More than 23,000 veterans currently serve in AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. And over the past five years, the community service corporation has mobilized 16,000 members in response to more than 200 declared disasters.

There’s another reason the president and Congress should support the Corporation for National and Community Service and its service programs: the business case is robust. From an investment standpoint, programs such as AmeriCorps leverage their federal dollars with private philanthropic support – on the order of $1.25 billion annually – increasing both their impact and their return to American taxpayers. What’s more, there is mounting evidence that national service programs have a positive impact on employment, educational outcomes, and civic engagement.

When we worked together on the bipartisan expansion of the corporation signed into law as the “Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act,” Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the bill’s sponsor with Senator Kennedy, called the program a model for “local, practical, results-oriented service.” And we don’t have to look far to see examples of the impact Senator Hatch described. Since 1994, more than 33,000 Massachusetts residents have served in AmeriCorps, logging more than 45 million hours in local organizations – from Barnstable County’s land trusts and fishery preservation programs to the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell.

Perhaps the most prominent local example is City Year, founded in Boston in 1988 and a model for the national AmeriCorps program, which trains and deploys teams of AmeriCorps members to low-performing, urban schools all over the country. Now with 28 locations, City Year serves students who are most at risk of dropping out. And a recent study found considerable impact from the City Year model: schools that partnered with City Year were two to three times more likely to increase English language arts and math proficiency rates.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Today, at a time when our nation is divided, our communities need the energy and civic infrastructure produced by young people looking for opportunities to serve.

Stephen Goldsmith is professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School and formerly mayor of Indianapolis, deputy mayor of New York City, and chairman of Corporation for National and Community Service. 

Alan Solomont is the dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University and formerly US ambassador to Spain and Andorra, and chairman of Corporation for National and Community Service.