GRAND RAPIDS — Advocates of the AmeriCorps program are concerned about its fate in the current national political environment.
President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service, which would lead to the elimination of AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and VISTA programs.
The potential budget cuts are driving Voices For National Service President AnnMaura Connolly to prepare for the worst, while remaining hopeful that the programs’ results will speak for themselves.
“I’m in a protect mode, but I’m also in a scale mode,” she said. “AmeriCorps to me is like a Swiss Army knife because it does a lot of things powerfully.”
To that end, Voices for National Service in advance of the 2016 presidential election hired Michael Meyers, a Republican pollster and Michigan native, to conduct a poll in nine battleground states to gauge the level of support for AmeriCorps programs.
“When he got the initial readback on the poll, he could hardly contain himself,” Connolly said. “Eighty-three percent of people across party lines thought the government should continue its support and increase funding. More than 78 percent of Trump supporters wanted to maintain or increase the federal investment.”
Connolly plans to remain vigilant and proactive, but is troubled that AmeriCorps is being targeted when it’s such a small part of the overall budget.
“When the White House proposes the elimination of any agency, you have to take that seriously because they’re going to try to fund so many of their priorities (that) they will need to find the money to do that somewhere,” Connolly said.
Trump’s proposed budget leaves the $1 billion federal investment in AmeriCorps in jeopardy and would eliminate the $4 billion return on investment that it yields, sources said.
At least in part, the program’s impact and ROI explain why federal lawmakers continue to throw their support behind AmeriCorps, said Robert Kolt, chair of the Michigan Community Service Commission. The commission uses service as a strategy to meet pressing issues and strengthen communities with programs like Michigan’s AmeriCorps, Mentor Michigan, Volunteer Michigan, and the Governor’s Service Awards.
Both state and federal lawmakers are aware of the powerful effects that AmeriCorps has in the communities it serves, he said.
Kolt said Gov. Rick Snyder has been very supportive of the Michigan Community Service Commission during his time in office. He said he finds it troubling that the cuts are targeting AmeriCorps funding, which is such a miniscule part of the federal budget.
“It’s a good investment and what happens if the programs are cut,” Kolt said. “Any program is at risk with a new budget and a new administration. I’m very hopeful that as lawmakers (realize) how many people are employed by AmeriCorps, they will negotiate in favor of these programs.”
The AmeriCorps program was created in 1994 and engages more than 80,000 Americans in intensive public service each year at 21,600 unique sites, including at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country, according to the organization’s website. Since the program’s founding, more than 1 million AmeriCorps members have contributed roughly 1.4 billion hours of service across America while tackling pressing problems and mobilizing more than 2.3 million volunteers for the organizations they serve.
Governors of states throughout the country stand to lose almost $500 million in service resources, said Tom Brannen, chief policy officer at America’s Service Commissions, a national industry group. He said services provided by AmeriCorps save states money while also addressing critical needs in communities.
As an example, Brannen cited the Minnesota Reading Corps, whose core function is to get all children to a third-grade reading level by third grade. He said the success of the program kept students from going into special education and saved the state more than $9 million.
“It’s the by-products,” Brannen said of the funding’s impact. “Most of the Mississippi delegation are some of our greatest champions because they saw what AmeriCorps did after Hurricane Katrina.”
Additionally, the people who provide support services gain invaluable training and experience.
Ben Duda, executive director of AmeriCorps Alums, said private, nonprofit and public employers see the program as a skill-building career path. Duda’s AmeriCorps service from 1999-2001 gave him the opportunity to serve in more than a dozen community-based organizations supporting everything from disaster recovery to housing to education.
“My teams were aged 18-24 and from across the country, meaning my service exposed me to people and issues I was previously unaware of or insulated from,” Duda said.
There are more than 1 million AmeriCorps alumni representing more than 1,000 AmeriCorps programs, Duda said. Once they complete their terms of service, they receive educational awards to offset the cost of college expenses.
Brannen said more than $3.3 billion has been distributed in education funding.
“A lot of universities are matching that,” he said. “In addition, some states including Arizona and Maryland are working on legislation to make in-state tuition available to individuals who have been working for AmeriCorps in their state for one year.”
The upside for these states is that they get enthusiastic young people who are workforce ready with the skills and experience to join a company or start their own businesses, Kolt said.
Connolly said her organization will continue to work with its counterparts to tell the AmeriCorps story as a way to ensure the continuation of the program’s funding. She said Voices for National Service has been engaging with other service councils throughout the United States to educate lawmakers about the cost-savings generated by programs like AmeriCorps at the local level, and their role in bringing people together.
“It allows community organizations to design their work,” Connolly said. “But it also brings together Americans across all of our differences. We need institutions that are going to expose Americans to each other and build bridges.”