May 14, 2020
This week, as new unemployment numbers rolled in, the national total of people filing for unemployment benefits since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis rose to over 33 million. The youth unemployment rate is twice that of older workers, and if history is any indication, they are likely to be left behind in our nation’s economic recovery. Furthermore, college students--and prospective students--of all ages are considering changing their plans as the pandemic upends the economy. Finally, donations to community organizations are quickly drying up, and these critical pillars of our communities are struggling to continue to serve in this time of great need and even keep their doors open.
One program could help solve all three of these problems at once. Enter AmeriCorps.
AmeriCorps, created in 1994, forms an umbrella of national and community initiatives, such as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), National Civilian Community Corps, AmeriCorps State and National, and more. Together, these programs employ around 75,000 people serving in community nonprofits or direct service programs across the nation. With AmeriCorps yielding nearly $4 in benefits for every taxpayer dollar invested, it is a sound use of resources.
But the way we’re using AmeriCorps right now could shift to expand access to more people in more communities. With a few changes, AmeriCorps can help these communities meet challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic in employment, community development, and higher education. Here’s what needs to be different to leverage the potential of AmeriCorps to address the current crisis.
First, the program is far too small. While the FY2020 budget included a slight increase in AmeriCorps funding, the $554.3 million that the federal government has appropriated for the program is insufficient to meet the current demand for community-based service workers. We support expanding the program to 750,000 volunteers over three years as the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act lays out, doubling the size of the program in the first year and again in the second year. At least one-third of these volunteer positions should be housed in local nonprofits through the VISTA program. This investment will get needed labor to nonprofits large and small in communities across the country who need support yet lack the resources to hire and will also connect young people to valuable paid work experience. The federal government--through AmeriCorps programs--can get them the support they need.
Second, job sites selecting AmeriCorps volunteers should be directed to prioritize local applicants. Now is the time to reconceptualize AmeriCorps--especially VISTA--as a local service program, leveraging community expertise and knowledge to build community institutions, gain valuable professional experience, and earn a living wage while doing it. As the UNITE Bill recommends, people who are unemployed due to the coronavirus should also be prioritized for service. AmeriCorps was intended to alleviate poverty in communities through service; it should help do the same for participants who call these communities home.
Third, AmeriCorps volunteers who are in college should be able to use their education benefits while they are completing their volunteer term, rather than having to wait until their year of service is over. Right now, AmeriCorps completers can receive a Segal Education award of $6,195 for a year of service. This award can be applied toward the principal of federal education loans or toward future tuition payments. Now, as students rethink college plans due to cost concerns, the ability to concurrently use Segal benefits and serve an AmeriCorps service term could benefit both volunteers and colleges. Furthermore, the paradigm of folks either working or going to college is outdated. Approximately 75 percent of college students work while in school, and nearly one-third work full-time. AmeriCorps volunteers should be able to pursue degrees to help them get settled in a career path when the economy improves while they also serve their communities in a difficult time.
Finally, stipends for volunteers should be raised to equal a living wage and take into account regional variations in the cost of living. Currently, stipends are set at poverty level for a household of one so participants have similar resources to the populations they serve. However, this can lead to AmeriCorps only being accessible to high-income participants who can afford to deal with a year of little income and bounce back to previous socioeconomic status. Though that’s not always the population of folks who serve in AmeriCorps now, it still happens far too often, risking turning the program into a form of poverty tourism. However, we should be using AmeriCorps to open doors of opportunity for folks to participate without endangering their economic security, especially those who can’t call high-income parents or rely on savings for extra resources to supplement their stipend.
Instead of intentionally paying poverty level stipends, AmeriCorps should be leveraged to provide economic stability to folks who need it.These higher stipends, which should be at least 250% of the federal poverty level, with additional hazard pay for positions with high risk of exposure to COVID-19, should still be combined with existing AmeriCorps benefits of child care, health care, and potentially food assistance through the federal Search Results Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), depending on the number of members in the volunteer’s family. And neither the stipends nor the Segal Education Award should be taxable. Volunteers deserve to reap the maximum reward for their service to their communities and the nation.
Many, if not most, young people will struggle to get a footing in the workforce while the economy is in dire straits and even after it starts coming back to life. A 1-year or 2-year AmeriCorps term would help them serve their community while furthering their education and empowering them to move forward in their careers as we reach toward a new normal.
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