AmeriCorps is a national service program open to all Americans (although generally over the age of 18 at this point). The programs deal address education, environmentalism, homelessness and all sorts of issues to address the needs of underserved communities. One month ago, Congress approved an incredible expansion of the program, with the number of federally funded community service positions increasing from 75,000 to 250,000. At a cost of $5.7 billion, the bill originally called AmeriCorps “a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people,” language which has sense been removed. The bill noted that the amped up program should “combine the best practices of civilian service with the best aspects of military service,” as part of “a permanent cadre” in a “National Community Civilian Corps.”
This expansion of the 1993 program developed under President Clinton would also allow AmeriCorps to reach out into new areas with a Clean Energy Corps, Education Corps, Healthy Futures Corps and Veterans Service Corps. Some say that this is terrific, it will get youth involved and give all Americans a way to give back. Others, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) argue that making service “mandatory” removes the volunteerism aspect of AmeriCorps and will only bring harm, forcing citizens to serve. Some critics go so far as to compare the changes to the program to Hitler Youth, stating that this new AmeriCorps would mean re-education camps that overstep our government’s reach:
The bill, The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, known as the GIVE Act, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and George Miller (D-CA), has been staunchly defended by those in support:
“Its ridiculous to suggest that our bill includes any effort to make service a mandatory requirement. All of the opportunities our bill provides to Americans are voluntary. Americans are proud of their service and volunteering and their interest in it is only growing, especially in the face of this crisis. Our legislation recognizes that more Americans than ever want to serve and give back and provides them with more opportunities to be able to do so,” Miller spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in an e-mail to FOXNews.com.
As a former Corps member myself, I’m not so sure what to think. While the communities that the program seeks to serve do indeed deserve additional attention, each AmeriCorps program is its own. While these programs rely on national funding and must abide by grant requirements, not all programs operate in the same ways. In my experience, I saw a lot of people, from different programs, left disillusioned with AmeriCorps for a variety of reasons. Joining AmeriCorps is a commitment to one year of service with the promise of funds to help pay for education or pay off student loans. Corps members earn a modest income, often referred to as a living stipend, and must pay taxes on the education award received at the end of their service. How about that one, Congress? Members pay about $500 in back taxes, nearly 5% of the income of a Corps member. Many are encouraged to go on food stamps. I’d say that we should work out those issues before we go throwing cash around to create more programs that could very well fall victim to many of the same faults the program faces now.
I met a lot of wonderful people as an AmeriCorps member, people who were suddenly tossed into roles as social workers and educators and who tried their best to help the people they served. AmeriCorps generally attracts “a good group of kids,” but in my case, I saw many of these good people left disheartened. AmeriCorps’s motto is “getting things done,” and I do believe that it can, and in many cases, it does. Maybe its not perfect, but this program was created with the intent of truly making an impact… I’m just not so sure adding thousands of positions with a whole lot of cash and a dash of hope is gonna be in anyone’s best interest.
AmeriCorps is unheard of by most people, and even when it was noted during the campaign by both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, the name of the program was very rarely mentioned. This is not a party issue; it’s a program that needs more attention and understanding from both sides.
Take a look at the AmeriCorps we’ve got here, people. Talk to those who have participated in it and let’s encourage lawmakers to work on sprucing up what we’ve got before reeling more folks in. Young people, many well-educated and capable of earning far more if they turn away for their idealism, are essentially willingly signing up for a year of poverty; we owe it to them to make sure that experience is both necessary and worth it. Let’s not forget that other Americans are on the receiving end of this service either– we owe it to the communities served to ensure that those in control are well-trained and competent. If we’re going to expand this program, let’s not put all the focus on expanding its reach, let’s work to pump up and better maintain what we already have.