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The Least Defensible Budget Cut

A former Americorps member explains why gutting the program’s funding doesn’t make sense—even on conservatives’ terms.

Upon leaving office, George H.W. Bush left his successor with only one request: preserve federal support for Points of Light, the foundation he created to encourage volunteerism and civic engagement. Bill Clinton followed through on that appeal and went on to establish AmeriCorps in 1993, which further solidified government support for nationally organized community service. He, in turn, had one request for his successor. “When I was leaving, and George W. Bush was coming in, the only thing I asked him to do was to preserve AmeriCorps,” Clinton said at a recent event in Washington. “And he did.”

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. (Full disclosure: Michael Alter, a member of The New Republic’s advisory board, is the founder of City Year Chicago.) “AmeriCorps really is the stream of human capital for these nonprofits,” said AnnMaura Connolly, a City Year executive. “Habitat wouldn’t be able to do what we do without AmeriCorps,” said Liz Blake, a senior vice president at Habitat for Humanity. “It would be devastating to our program.” In short, the consequences of this measure would be dire for many.

A quick re-cap of what AmeriCorps members actually do: Corps members spend a year or two in the most blighted neighborhoods in America, serving in nonprofits, 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. Paid as little as $11,000 per year, their poverty is often temporary—ameliorated by the safety net of education and family support—but it nonetheless provides a glimpse at the inequalities rampant in the communities they serve.

I’ve witnessed such things firsthand: I am an AmeriCorps alum, one of more than 600,000 scattered throughout the nation. After college, I served at a transitional housing community for homeless, single-parent families in Denver. My two years of service included no shortage of challenges. I confronted drug use and domestic violence. Days off were rare, as evenings and weekends were spent supervising volunteers. Despite the difficulties, my experience provided innumerable rewards—namely, the privilege of helping families escape homelessness. I benefited on a more practical level as well, using an educational voucher offered to AmeriCorps alums to fund my grad school education.

My positive experience was not unique. Countless AmeriCorps volunteers get hooked on the work and go on to careers in social service. For those who enter other sectors—business, law, even journalism—the hope is that they bring the lessons of the Corps with them, creating a more socially conscious workforce. AmeriCorps thus provides a formative experience—an opportunity for an all-encompassing period of service for those who are not inclined to join the military. As one current AmeriCorps member told me, “Serving your country, whether in the military or through AmeriCorps, is such a vital part of being a citizen.”

Cutting AmeriCorps not only limits opportunities for non-military public service, it may have an inhibiting effect on future social entrepreneurship. AmeriCorps’s competitive funding process has been instrumental in getting a number of the country’s most innovative programs off the ground. TFA Founder Wendy Kopp has said an initial $2 million grant from AmeriCorps was crucial in her organization’s infancy. In the 1990s, Geoffrey Canada relied on AmeriCorps members—“the army we needed and could afford,” as he called them—when he was starting the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).

Perhaps the most objectionable element of the House Republicans’ proposal is that many of the programs that AmeriCorps funds are exactly the kind that so-called compassionate conservatives are supposed to support. Rather than offering a government handout, AmeriCorps-backed programs like Habitat for Humanity 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’s efficacy has won over a host of conservatives, including John McCain and Colin Powell. Republican Senator Dan Coats, who voted against AmeriCorps while in the House, later recanted in an op-ed titled “Why I Changed My Mind about AmeriCorps.” In 2009, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress voted to expand AmeriCorps, from 75,000 to 250,000 members within eight years. In February, Haley Barbour—who, just two years ago, recognized “AmeriCorps Week” in Mississippi—thanked Corps members for their work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and last year’s Deepwater Horizon Spill.

House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers has justified the proposed cuts that would gut AmeriCorps by saying that his committee merely “weeded out excessive, unnecessary, and wasteful spending, making tough choices to prioritize programs based on their effectiveness.” But, with its proven results and excellent funding leverage (AmeriCorps raises over $800 million in private and nonfederal match money each year), the program hardly deserves the labels of “excessive” or “wasteful.” In fact, of all the House GOP’s drastic cost-cutting measures, the elimination of AmeriCorps might be among the least defensible, even on conservatives’ own terms.

Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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