This piece was originally published by Next100, a startup think tank powered by The Century Foundation and created for—and by—the next generation of policy leaders.
We are now well past the half-year mark of the pandemic, and the damage it has wrought is coming into focus. Unemployment—and youth unemployment in particular—initially soared and has stayed high. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead. And, both in terms of lives taken and its economic toll, COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed Indigenous, Black, and Latinx communities that were already severely disadvantaged compared to their predominantly white counterparts. COVID-19 did not create disparities along racial and ethnic lines, but it has revealed and exacerbated the inequities in access to quality health care, housing, education, and economic opportunity that we have allowed to fester.
This pandemic has also laid bare another challenge: the limitations of our government, and our public sector more broadly, in times of crisis when they are most needed. A global public health emergency, overlaying and worsening underlying structural inequities, should have been an opportunity for government to prove its worth. But, with some exceptions, our federal, state, and local governments have struggled to lead. Now, many face dramatic layoffs due to revenue cuts, which will further harm their effectiveness and ability to support communities.
In the vacuum left by government, the COVID-19 pandemic should have been an opportunity for community-based nonprofits to serve—and save—their local communities. And so many did step up, supported by philanthropists who chose to adjust priorities in this moment. But these nonprofits also face uncertain futures, challenged by what a multi-year economic recovery will mean for their finances.
While far from a silver bullet, an expansion of national service with a focus on increasing diversity and equity among Corps members, coupled with an investment in building capacity and innovation at the Corporation for National and Community Service to rebuild the public sector more broadly, could produce a triple-bottom-line solution: tackle unemployment for young people, especially young people of color, and better prepare them for careers in high-growth sectors; help local communities recover; and expand a path to public sector careers for the innovative, diverse next generation, rebuilding trust in government along the way.
Expand AmeriCorps to hire 1,000,000 diverse young people over the next several years, speeding our nation’s recovery from the pandemic.
AmeriCorps already hosts over 75,000 diverse young people a year across three main programs (Americorps State and National, VISTA, and NCCC), all of which provide a modest living stipend and an education award to use toward repaying students loans or on further education. Congress should expand the programs to fund 250,000 AmeriCorps positions a year over the next four years, with new openings focused on helping rebuild the communities that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. This would provide extra capacity to state and local governments and nonprofits to support these communities across areas such as education, health care, and economic opportunity.
A dollar invested in AmeriCorps recoups over three dollars from higher tax revenues and reduced spending on social programs over the long term.
Two key pieces of legislation would lay out a strong framework for this expansion: the bipartisan Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act, introduced in June by U.S. senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of sixteen other senators; and Representative David E. Price (D-NC)’s Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, with sixty-seven bipartisan cosponsors. The CORPS Act would cost about $16 billion, a drop in the bucket compared to the $2 trillion CARES Act. Moreover, due to its public–private nature, AmeriCorps actually creates a net savings for taxpayers. A dollar invested in AmeriCorps recoups over three dollars from higher tax revenues and reduced spending on social programs over the long term. When one also counts gains for society in health, education, and productivity from AmeriCorps members’ service, the value of benefits gained for every dollar invested grows to over $17.
Here are several ways that Americorps members can provide crucial services.
Hire AmeriCorps members to expand educational opportunities for students both during and as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
AmeriCorps members can provide support for educators and students during the pandemic, overseeing students learning remotely and providing additional one-on-one outreach and support to keep students engaged and developing. In the longer term, AmeriCorps members can be the backbone of tutoring corps, supporting academic acceleration, especially for vulnerable students. High-quality tutoring is one of the few evidence-based strategies identified thus far to help students catch up after their twelve to eighteen months of disrupted educational learning experiences.
Hire AmeriCorps members to tackle needed climate sustainability and resiliency projects.
As numerous proposals have laid out, there are a series of urgent climate needs that AmeriCorps members could help address. Environmental management projects well-suited to AmeriCorps include forest restoration and management, coastal ecosystem and native grassland restoration, removal of invasive species, and building recreational wilderness amenities like hiking trails. In addition, AmeriCorps members can do disaster preparedness work, including community engagement and education, particularly in the communities hardest hit by climate change.
Hire AmeriCorps members to contribute to our COVID-19 public health response.
Different places have leveraged AmeriCorps members for different public health projects, but to pick two examples, Colorado has deployed hundreds to assist with contact tracing, and Michigan’s Corps members made masks for health care workers, assisted with intake and other duties at drive-through COVID-19 testing sites, and coordinated blood donations.
Hire AmeriCorps members to provide other services needed to rebuild the communities and systems hardest hit by COVID-19.
AmeriCorps members can also meet many other urgent needs that nonprofits and state and local governments are seeking to address, from helping set up and run meal distribution sites, to contributing to emergency preparedness initiatives and working with homebound seniors to ensure that they are enrolled in Meals on Wheels and are receiving other services.
Upgrade AmeriCorps into a workforce development program, aligned with in-demand jobs and sectors, and provide young people with the skill-building they need.
While AmeriCorps has traditionally succeeded in placing young people in roles supporting communities, it is too often viewed—fairly or not—as a way to spend a year before “real life” begins. But with small tweaks, its potential as a workforce development program that allows participants to learn while they contribute to their communities, gain real-world experience, and earn a living stipend could be met, making it more valuable for participants from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
AmeriCorps programs could be supported to take two steps to increase the long-term value of a service year for Corps members—steps whose success will depend on the programs receiving adequate funding and support from CNCS and other federal and state agencies. First, programs could be required (and adequately funded) to provide—either directly or through an external provider—intentional sector-specific and soft skills training, so that participants gain the skills needed to progress in their field of service. Training could also set participants up for career pathways by partnering with labor unions, businesses, community colleges, and technical schools to place people in jobs or educational or training programs after Corps completion. (Evidence suggests that workplace training yields dividends for employers and that sector-based training increases trainees’ placement in the targeted sector.)
Second, AmeriCorps programs could support interested Corps members with obtaining in-demand, industry-recognized job certifications that place trainees on high-quality career pathways. Where possible, programs should provide the scheduling flexibility to earn the certifications before the program’s completion. Together, these shifts would enable alumni to qualify for higher-paying jobs following their year of service, and possibly use their education award in a way that is aligned with an intentional career path. CNCS should clarify that the 20 percent training cap does not apply to these capacity building activities, which support the members’ and the sectors’ long-term capacity. While not all Corps member roles may be in a growth sector, many will be: education, health care, and climate are three of the highest-potential service areas, and all three are high-growth (or expected to be high-growth) sectors.
Strengthen AmeriCorps to reflect the diversity of the United States, and reflect and support the talent within the communities AmeriCorps serves.
While expanding AmeriCorps, Congress and the administration must also ensure that AmeriCorps actually represents the diversity of the United States, and particularly the talent within communities the program serves. This representation will both improve the quality of the services that the programs deliver to communities, by ensuring that those who are proximate to and grounded in community needs and priorities are actually engaged in the work, and that the increased employment driven by an AmeriCorps expansion benefits these communities.
AmeriCorps participants overall continue to be over half white, and while good data does not exist on how this compares to the demographics of communities where members are based, the program participants are likely not representative of these communities. And while data on the family socioeconomic status of participants is not available for AmeriCorps overall, the structure of the program does not make it equally accessible to those from low-income backgrounds. The small living stipend is a major factor: VISTA has an annual living allowance that starts at about $12,000 in lower-income areas; for AmeriCorps State and National, the minimum living allowance is currently around $14,000. Many members struggle with basic living expenses, and this low pay is a substantial barrier to further diversifying the program.
To improve diversity within AmeriCorps and ensure individuals from communities served are better represented, Congress should increase the living allowance to better cover member expenses. Just as with unpaid internships, low pay can lock out would-be participants from lower-income backgrounds who are also disproportionately people of color. Given the high return on investment of every dollar invested in AmeriCorps, living allowances could be raised significantly while still maintaining a positive return for taxpayers and communities.
In addition, CNCS and AmeriCorps grantees should be required to proactively recruit from, and have hiring goals for, people from communities served. Grantees should also be required to collect and report data on both the socioeconomic status of participants and the degree to which participants are from served communities, in addition to the racial and ethnic data that is already collected. CNCS should make this data public nationally and at the state level, including breaking the data down by issue area (e.g., education, climate, health). NCCC already has a requirement that 50 percent of members be “disadvantaged youth,” which should be maintained.
In addition, CNCS should build its own capacity to recruit and support diverse and inclusive programs that better reflect the communities they serve. A top priority here should be working with State Commissions to bring new programs into AmeriCorps, with a focus on those that are led by members of the community and leaders of color. A new diversity, equity, and inclusion officer and team at CNCS headquarters could also work with current grantees to identify and disseminate best practices around recruiting and supporting diverse corps members and building inclusive organizations at the local level. The team could also provide technical assistance—directly and through external experts, including current grantees—on the same goals. A DEI Advisory Council of former AmeriCorps members, organizational leaders, and experts could further support the agency’s capacity to support the field.
Finally, Congress should eliminate the taxability of AmeriCorps education awards, consistent with the bipartisan Segal AmeriCorps Education Award Tax Relief Act (H.R. 1794/S. 1355) that was introduced in the House and Senate last year. Corps members can currently only spend education awards on educational expenses at qualified institutions of higher education, and the awards are sent directly to those institutions or student loan holders for that purpose—before being taxed. So, AmeriCorps alumni find themselves with a tax bill—which sometimes can be over a thousand dollars—for money that they never actually see.
Create stronger pathways into public service for AmeriCorps alumni, to bring a new generation of diverse young people into the government workforce.
National service can be an effective talent pipeline to the public sector—a pipeline needed now more than ever. Government—particularly, but not only, at the federal level—has massively exacerbated the current crisis through incompetence, indecision, and intentionally harmful policy choices. And yet, the effectiveness of the public sector, and the quality and diversity of public sector talent, will be critical to repairing the damage in the short term, rebuilding trust in government in the medium term, and reaching a more equitable society in the long term. Moreover, we know a massive wave of retirements is coming in governments across the country. 250,000 AmeriCorps alumni a year could help rebuild the sector, especially if we give them a pathway in.
The effectiveness of the public sector, and the quality and diversity of public sector talent, will be critical to repairing the damage in the short term, rebuilding trust in government in the medium term, and reaching a more equitable society in the long term.
At the federal level, some federal agencies already allow AmeriCorps VISTA alumni to go through an expedited hiring process, but these efforts should be expanded across all agencies and to alumni of other AmeriCorps and CNCS service programs. Moreover, CNCS and state commissions should work with governors and state and local governments to identify and develop state and local pathways into government service for AmeriCorps alumni, for the short as well as the long term. To ensure AmeriCorps members are well-equipped for these jobs, state commissions and programs should facilitate training that prepares members to work in specific federal, state, and local government agencies in or near where they are serving, organize presentations and site visits to offer exposure to careers in those agencies, and connect members with the hiring staff in those agencies to facilitate placement in public sector jobs after completing their service. We know AmeriCorps members are interested in these jobs given their commitment to service: 79 percent of AmeriCorps alumni are, or plan to become, actively involved in their community after their time in the program, compared to 47 percent prior to participating.
Waive AmeriCorps’ short-term match requirement and provide AmeriCorps programs with the support needed to maintain operations until the economy recovers.
AmeriCorps grantees are usually required to raise a substantial “match” from state, local, or private funds, which is challenging at a time when nonprofits are facing unstable philanthropic revenue due to the pandemic. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)—AmeriCorps’ parent agency—thus waived match requirements for the 2019–2020 fiscal year so that nonprofits that cannot meet their match this spring are not further punished with a loss of federal funds. This requirement should continue to be waived until the economy fully recovers and AmeriCorps’ partner organizations can once again afford their matching funds. Relatedly, a small investment of flexible funds in CNCS would allow it to support grantees in shoring up gaps created by the decrease in private matching funds and support programming changes made necessary by the pandemic, such as transitioning to online service delivery.
Making the right kind of investment in our future.
Our nation’s economic recovery is precarious. We can prevent the dual health and economic crises from becoming an extended catastrophe, but doing so will require genuine investment in providing employment and in alleviating the damage the pandemic has wrought on communities. Expanding AmeriCorps can help us achieve both of these goals, but the program must also be adjusted to ensure it provides genuine opportunity and a strong path to a career to a diverse set of young Americans.
header photo: Members of Universe City, a decentralized food hub in the Brownsville neighborhood that is working to build food sovereignty while also promoting community healing practices, pack boxes of fresh produce delivered from City Harvest which will be distributed to area food banks, community leaders and other places to serve New Yorkers in need of food in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images