The Clinton-era national service program is getting new attention as the country tries to contain and recover from the coronavirus pandemic. A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to deploy an army of volunteers for contact tracing, which would require some 300,000 people to map exposure to the virus. They say an expanded fleet of young AmeriCorps members also could deliver food and supplies to people who are homebound or tutor elementary students to stem learning loss.
“The goal here is in the face of a genuine national crisis, both economic and public health, to call on a generation of younger Americans to step forward and serve,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who last month introduced the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act.
AmeriCorps members already are serving communities devastated by the public health crisis, but to expand their ranks, the federal program will require greater investment and some fine tuning.
Building up a corps of hundreds of thousands of volunteers won’t be cheap. By some estimates, it could cost the federal government about $7 billion a year. Supporters say that’s a nominal price to pay for the potential gains in both health and economics to the nation as a whole. But AmeriCorps’s fraught history of federal support, littered with funding promises and spending cuts, fuels skepticism that the latest expansion and overhaul effort will amount to much.
Having a corps of volunteers fanning out in expensive cities will require a bump in the living allowance, which is as low as $15,000 a year. The paltry stipend means some volunteers rely on food stamps or lean on family for housing. Although demand for positions routinely exceeds supply, AmeriCorps proponents worry the low pay is a barrier for people who could benefit from the program.
“AmeriCorps members do really important work in communities across the country, but unless AmeriCorps provides better pay, benefits and protections, many people from low-income communities and people of color will not be able to participate,” said Victoria Jackson, a higher education policy analyst at the nonprofit Education Trust and an AmeriCorps graduate.
Coons’s legislation, which has growing support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, would increase stipends to about $22,230. It also would raise the value of the education award to $20,880, which is twice the national average of in-state tuition and fees at public universities.
All told, the legislation would double the number of AmeriCorps volunteers in its first year, from 75,000 to 150,000, and expand the corps to 750,000 members over three years.
Created in 1993 and run by the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps partners with hundreds of organizations that train and place volunteers in classrooms, national parks, disaster areas and impoverished communities. The federal government foots $1 billion for a portion of the bill, which is matched by private and local funds.
Some of the most well-known programs under the AmeriCorps umbrella, such as Teach for America, have played important and controversial roles in the public sector. Critics have derided such national service programs as domestic “voluntourism,” a way station for well-off grads en route to law school.
But for Joseph Pearson-Green, serving in City Year, a nonprofit that deploys AmeriCorps volunteers to tutor in low-income schools, has deepened his understanding of his own community. A graduate of the District’s Dunbar Senior High School, Pearson-Green, 26, admits to entering Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast Washington with a bit of a savior complex.
“I thought this is where I’m from … they need me, but that was the wrong approach,” he said. “It’s important to realize the strengths of the community and look at it through an asset-based lens, rather than a deficit lens.”
Pearson-Green enrolled in City Year two years ago, while in his junior year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He needed a break but wanted to do something meaningful with his time. When a City Year recruiter arrived on campus, Pearson-Green was struck by memories of the organization’s volunteers working alongside students and faculty at his high school years earlier.
After his year of service was up, Pearson-Green extended his service, working as a team leader at Ketcham while finishing up his degree. Because he could live at home while serving, Pearson-Green said it was easier for him to make do with the allowance than it is for others.
When he graduates in August, Pearson-Green hopes to get hired on at City Year. He said the organization’s work will be critical in the coming school year for students in need of academic interventions and emotional support in the wake of the pandemic. “Empathy,” he said, “is needed more than ever.”
National service programs have played a role in economic recovery since the Great Depression. Republican and Democratic presidents, including Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, have expanded the network of programs. Yet federal support often has fallen short.
An Obama-era push to create 250,000 AmeriCorps slots was beaten back by Congress’s failure to fund the effort. Years later, President Trump, who had praised national service on the campaign trail, proposed eliminating the program altogether.
“It’s a matter of prioritizing. And this is a real priority,” said Eric Tanenblatt, who served on the board of the national service corporation during the George W. Bush administration. “There are moments if you look back in history when national service has really come to the fore, and this is another time when we really need it. It could address a number of challenges that we’re facing.”
One such challenge that may get Congress’s attention: contact tracing.
Yet the latest pandemic relief bill that cleared the House offered no new funding for national service. Coons remains hopeful the momentum he has built in the Senate will ultimately deliver more financial sup
port for AmeriCorps volunteers.
“To get someone who is highly motivated and interested in doing national service and capable in a culturally relevant way of doing contact tracing — I think it’s good spending,” Coons said.