Don’t Kill AmeriCorps - Pacific Standard

Don’t Kill AmeriCorps

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The indispensable federal program provides public service jobs to tens of thousands of young people, yet some want to destroy it.

By Jimmy Tobias

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Brad Diver (L) and Sarah Schindhelm (R), both AmeriCorps volunteers from New Orleans, work with Habitat for Humanity building homes for Hurricane Katrina victims in Rockefeller Plaza on September 23rd, 2005, in New York City. (Photo: Michael Nagle/Getty Images)

In May of 2011, a year out of college and looking to serve my country in a non-military capacity, I filled my little black Ford with books and clothes and camping gear, some food and fishing supplies, said goodbye to my family, and hit the highway. I drove for three days through the Upper Midwest, the Dakotas, the sagebrush plains of the Rocky Mountain front until I arrived one early morning in front of a small gray building in Missoula, Montana.

In the parking lot out back, as trains rumbled past, a hundred young people were making each other’s acquaintance. They came from all over the country and all kinds of circumstances, from rural counties and small towns, from suburbs and big cities, straight from high school, fresh out of college, or from years-old careers. Though complete strangers, there was a feeling of excited camaraderie among the gathered crowd: Everyone was there for an arduous adventure, for six straight months of AmeriCorps service.

Two weeks later, we were miles deep in the mountains of Montana and Idaho. We entered the woods in small crews for 10 days at a time to clear trees, build bridges, repair infrastructure, and open long-neglected trails for the United States Forest Service. We slept in tents and cleaned ourselves in creeks, we rose early, worked until evening, and fell fast asleep as soon as we climbed inside our sleeping bags. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always safe — loose rocks, toppling trees, and lurking rattlesnakes are an occupational hazard for trail workers. It wasn’t lucrative either — we were paid small stipends, and an education award at the end of our service. Everyone was happy for a job, of course, but money wasn’t the priority.

America’s national service programs provide an alternative to military service, a non-martial way to contribute to the country’s well being.

As AmeriCorps volunteers laboring for federal land agencies, we wanted to pitch in. We were budding conservationists and prospective public servants being put to work by one of our country’s prized domestic programs. Many of us would build lives in Montana, and would continue in public service for years to come.

AmeriCorps is a gem. It provides tens of thousands of jobs to America’s youth each year. It sends them across the country to contribute in countless ways to the betterment of communities large and small. It inspires them to pursue lives of public-minded civic engagement. It builds muscles, self-respect, practical skills, tight friendships, and beautiful memories. It gets things done, as the program’s pledge puts it.

Yet the Trump administration is considering cutting the program. It wants to eliminate an invaluable launching pad for active citizens. It wants to destroy jobs. It wants to kill AmeriCorps.

Last week, the New York Timesreported that the Trump administration has put together a “hit list” of popular programs that it hopes to eliminate entirely from the federal government during coming budget negotiations. Programs that face the axe, according to the report, include the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, and, finally, AmeriCorps.

The cuts under consideration are largely inspired by a draft 2017 budget, known as the “skinny budget,” that the far-right Heritage Foundation developed and which has found a warm reception in Donald Trump’s White House. The skinny budget is a blitzkrieg meant to reduce the federal government to rubble. It seeks to cut $10.5 trillion in federal spending in 10 years by eliminating or privatizing many of the government’s most important domestic social, environmental, jobs, arts, and infrastructure programs, among other things.

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AmeriCorps volunteers Andrea Magnolo (L) and Martez Riley rake debris from the remains of a home on June 18th, 2011, in Joplin, Missouri. More than 28,000 volunteers made their way to Joplin to help clear debris in the weeks following an EF5 tornado that leveled parts of the city. (Photo: Julie Denesha/Getty Images)

Heritage, a well-funded think-tank backed by some of America’s largest corporations and key members of the reactionary 1 percent, including the Koch, Scaife, and Walton families, has long sought the destruction of discretionary domestic programs like AmeriCorps. In 1995, just a year after AmeriCorps began, Heritage called the program a “$575 million boondoggle” that undermines the spirit of volunteerism and costs taxpayers too much. Two decades later, Heritage was using the same kind of rhetoric, and still pursuing the dissolution of the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps’ parent agency.

“Apart from creating the oxymoronic ‘paid volunteer,’ programs funded by this agency represent another example of federal overreach into local and community activities,” Heritage wrote in a 2013 report. “… This program should be eliminated.”

AmeriCorps, of course, is neither particularly expensive nor a boondoggle. As for “overreach,” that tired phrase is a meaningless label meant to paint everything besides national security spending as an illegitimate use of government funds.

In reality, the Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other programs, receives approximately $1 billion each year in federal dollars. CNCS makes up about 0.03 percent of the federal budget, and solicits matching private and other outside funding to boot. For this relatively small taxpayer investment, AmeriCorps, according to program data, places approximately 80,000 Americans in more than 20,000 community service sites each year, including placements with Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity, and numerous conservation corps operating in states around the country. Since the program’s founding, AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1.4 billion hours of volunteer service in total. AmeriCorps, moreover, has broad bipartisan support, including from prominent Republicans like Senators John McCain, Thad Cochran, and Roy Blunt.

“A lot of AmeriCorps volunteers are going into the highest need communities in the country and literally working 10- or 12-hour days,” says AnnMaura Connolly, the president of Voices for National Service, a coalition of service organizations across the country. “I can’t imagine looking a corpsmember in the eye after they are making these sacrifices for a meager stipend and a little bit of help with college debt and calling their work a boondoggle. These people are putting their heart and soul into this.”

As Connolly points out, AmeriCorps volunteers do indeed receive small stipends that pay for food and rent, and they do get education grants, but the program is not responsible for the concept of the “paid volunteer,” as Heritage claims. Militaries all around the world refer to those who freely sign up to serve as volunteers. And members of volunteer armies get paid. America’s national service programs provide an alternative to military service, a non-martial way to contribute to the country’s well being. Paid volunteers are at the core of that idea and small stipends help ensure that young people from all class backgrounds are able to engage in national service.

Heritage’s arguments aside, why, really, does the far right want to kill programs like AmeriCorps? Is it because AmeriCorps instills in young people a belief in the importance of the public realm, a realm Republicans in recent years have come to see as their principal enemy? Is it because AmeriCorps exposes young people to places where poverty and inequality and environmental degradation are readily apparent and thus encourages in them certain empathetic political commitments? Is it because AmeriCorps inspires young people to partake in a lifetime of active citizenship, which the Republican Party’s voter suppression efforts so desperately want to discourage?

No matter the motivation, the desire to destroy AmeriCorps shows just how little some right-wing factions in the GOP care about employment opportunities for young Americans, how little they care about fostering a culture of civic engagement in this country. In order to brutally diminish the federal government, in order to shrink it until it’s small enough to drown “in the bathtub,” as the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist once put it, our ruling party would sacrifice the future prospects and public service dreams of young people all over the nation.

If it moves forward with a plan to kill AmeriCorps and similar programs, the Trump administration will soon find itself in a very tough fight.

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