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.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led us to an unprecedented health, economic, and social crisis. Beyond the daily death tolls, a horrifying number of people are losing their jobs, and not all of the small businesses and nonprofits that employ so many Americans will bounce back after months of little to no income. Unsurprisingly, the impacts of the virus itself, and the job loss and economic downturn we face, will disproportionately hurt vulnerable communities, low-income communities, and communities of color. COVID-19 has not created these inequities, but it has laid bare and exacerbated the inequities we have allowed to fester. The amount of aid this catastrophe will require from the federal government is enormous, with it already becoming clear that the $2 trillion invested so far through the CARES Act is not up to the task.
Stabilizing and growing AmeriCorps can speed our return to a healthy society by providing a meaningful boost to many young people’s careers, delivering necessary supports to the communities most impacted by the pandemic, and maintaining the strength of the nonprofit sector.
While far from a silver bullet solution, expanding national service programs like AmeriCorps should be a core component of the recovery agenda. AmeriCorps members are already helping our country through this time, supporting the continuity of food access and learning, keeping homebound seniors connected, and so much more. Stabilizing and growing AmeriCorps can speed our return to a healthy society by providing a meaningful boost to many young people’s careers, delivering necessary supports to the communities most impacted by the pandemic, and maintaining the strength of the nonprofit sector. Moreover, it will do so at a net savings to taxpayers, with a dollar invested in AmeriCorps recouping over two dollars from higher tax revenues and reduced spending on social programs over the long term. When one also counts gains to society in health, education, and productivity from AmeriCorps members’ participation and service, the value of benefits gained for every dollar invested grows to over $3.50.
National service has a long tradition in the United States. While the phrase evokes military service, that has been far from its only application: President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps in response to the Great Depression, John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps at the height of the Cold War to strengthen relationships with lower-income nations, and non-military service opportunities have expanded since then. Bill Clinton and Congress created the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which funded the first class of AmeriCorps members in 1994. While the current administration has repeatedly tried—and failed—to eliminate CNCS, national service has generally had bipartisan appeal, with conservative Republicans such as former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy standing alongside Democrats to defend and expand the programs. In fact, the most recent national service legislation was led by the late liberal icon Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the conservative Senator Orrin Hatch, and passed Congress by significant margins in the otherwise partisan first months of the Obama administration.
AmeriCorps today hosts over 75,000 diverse young people a year across three main programs, all of which provide a modest living stipend and an education award to use toward repaying students loans or on further education. AmeriCorps State & National connects people to hundreds of community-based organizations that provide services in education, environmental stewardship, food security, and other areas. AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) places people in capacity-building positions in nonprofits or government agencies. AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) offers a team-based, residential experience generally focused on conservation and disaster response, with the option of directly supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of the FEMA Corps. All grantees must focus on the priorities of disaster services, economic opportunity, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures, or serving veterans and military families; and all are required to show impact in their areas.
How to Expand and Adapt Our National Service Programs to Today’s Needs
At this moment, national service is an efficient vehicle for tackling multiple challenges. It’s an employment and training program for young people, who are about to be the hardest hit by unemployment. It’s a nimble, targeted solution to help hard-hit communities recover from this national disaster. It’s an efficient way to shore up our struggling nonprofit sector when we need it most, and to strengthen the talent pipeline into the public sector. But to have national service meet these needs, we need action by the federal government.
In the short term, the federal government should shore up the national service programs that are providing an infrastructure for critically needed support in local communities. These programs—alongside other nonprofits around the country—are suddenly dealing with fundraising gaps and adjusting their program models to align with social distancing guidelines. Congress already took some critical steps to shore up national service programs in the CARES Act, ensuring that AmeriCorps members who cannot complete their service because of COVID-19 are not punished and will still receive their education award; and that nonprofits that host members will not be financially punished if social distancing measures make their work impossible. The CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program may also help some nonprofits, but not most: just a week in, it was clear that the demand for loans will far exceed the provided funding, with larger, more sophisticated organizations likely to be the largest beneficiaries.
Short-term actions to shore up programs are critical, but the real opportunity for national service comes in supporting our recovery, as laid out in the recent Undertaking National Initiatives to Tackle Epidemic (UNITE) Act, introduced by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Edward Markey (D-MA). No one knows exactly what challenges lie ahead, or the timeline and pace of recovery. But we do know that by this summer and fall, school children—and particularly vulnerable students—will have lost months of schooling. We know the unemployment rate will be astounding, with vulnerable communities decimated by job losses, newly homeless families, and a need for an expanded social safety net. We know young people will struggle to find a foothold in a career. Strengthening and expanding national service—specifically AmeriCorps State & Local, VISTA, and NCCC—can be a proactive approach to recovery. Congress and CNCS should take the following steps:
Expand AmeriCorps, with a focus on rebuilding the communities and systems hardest hit by COVID-19.
Congress should fund 250,000 AmeriCorps positions a year, with new positions focused on helping rebuild the communities that are being hit the hardest by COVID-19. This would provide extra capacity to existing nonprofits to support these communities across areas such as education, health care, and economic opportunity. This would also put CNCS on a path to the 250,000 AmeriCorps members per year authorized by the last reauthorization of the National and Community Service Act (which has never been funded at the level necessary to support this expansion).
Expand NCCC and FEMA Corps.
Congress should expand AmeriCorps NCCC, one of the federal government’s most nimble response programs. NCCC members can be sent to devastated communities in short-term deployments to address pressing needs. FEMA Corps in particular sends NCCC members to address pressing disaster response needs. The federal government could also consider whether other federal agency corps that function like FEMA Corps—e.g., a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Corps, focused on contact tracing (more on this below)—would be valuable at this time.
Increase the AmeriCorps living allowance.
While expanding AmeriCorps, Congress should also increase its living allowance to better cover member expenses. For VISTA, the annual living allowance varies between about $12,000 in lower-income areas to about $20,000 in places as expensive as New York City; for AmeriCorps State and National, the minimum living allowance is currently around $14,000. Many members struggle with basic living expenses. Moreover, just as with unpaid internships, this low pay can lock out would-be participants from lower-income backgrounds. 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 society.
Eliminate the taxability of AmeriCorps education awards.
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. The current education award can be spent only on educational expenses at qualified institutions of higher education, and is sent directly to a corps member’s educational institution or student loan holder for that purpose—and it is then taxed. That means AmeriCorps alumni find themselves with a tax bill for money that they never actually see, a bill that can be over a thousand dollars. Scholarships for university tuition and required fees are not taxable—AmeriCorps education grants should not be either. This is particularly important at this moment in time: AmeriCorps members who are being furloughed or are exiting AmeriCorps into a devastated job market should not be taxed on a benefit that can only be used for educational expenses.
Provide access to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for furloughed AmeriCorps members.
Through no fault of their own, many AmeriCorps members are being furloughed as COVID-19 makes their work impossible—as are so many other workers. And yet, unlike many other workers, it is not clear that furloughed AmeriCorps members can access unemployment insurance. The Department of Labor should ensure that furloughed AmeriCorps members—alongside evacuated Peace Corps members—can benefit from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program in the CARES Act. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and U.S. Representative Dean Phillips (D-MN) are leading a bipartisan, bicameral group that has already urged such action.
Offer waivers and flexibility for the programs’ short-term match requirement.
AmeriCorps grantees are usually required to raise a substantial “match” from state, local, or private funds. While this is generally good practice to ensure diversity of financial support, it is problematic at this moment, given a shrinking availability of private funding and the inability to conduct large fundraising events. In the short term, CNCS should allow match requirements to be waived, so that nonprofits that cannot meet their match this spring are not further punished with a loss of federal funds.
Provide AmeriCorps programs with the support needed to maintain operations through this crisis.
Just as Congress has provided funding for state and local governments to fill revenue gaps—although it hasn’t provided nearly enough—a small investment of flexible funds for CNCS would allow it to support grantees in shoring up gaps created by the sudden decrease in private matching funds. Funds would also support transitioning to online service delivery when social distancing has made traditional, face-to-face service models—from providing tutoring to delivering meals—impossible. Many programs are nimbly making this transition, and CNCS should encourage and facilitate the transition of as many programs as possible.
Many AmeriCorps organizations have already shifted their models in response to the crisis. FoodCorps—which places corps members across the country to facilitate healthy food access—has pivoted their 250 AmeriCorps members to helping set up and run meal distribution sites, and to maintaining the capacity of schools to bring food education back when they reopen. Michigan’s AmeriCorps members are making masks for health care workers, assisting with intake and other duties at drive-through COVID-19 testing sites, coordinating blood donations, and contributing to several different emergency preparedness and food preparation and distribution initiatives. VISTA members working for nonprofits in Fairbanks, Alaska, have shifted to working remotely while continuing to serve their local United Way branch, library, and other organizations. AmeriCorps members working for Maricopa County, Arizona’s Area Agency on Aging are calling seniors to check in and ensure that they are enrolled in Meals on Wheels. Minnesota has created an AmeriCorps Emergency Response Initiative to have over 200 members serve over the summer in the areas of food insecurity, distance learning, help for older adults, and the health care system.
Proactive, coordinated efforts to repurpose current and new AmeriCorps or NCCC members could more systematically tackle the systematic challenges communities are facing. As physical school closures impact up to 100,000 schools and over fifty-five million students, basic student engagement is an ongoing challenge, especially for vulnerable students. AmeriCorps members are well-equipped to conduct one-to-one daily check-ins with students, and provide individualized support, in coordination with educators and schools. When students return to school this summer and fall, they will have months of lost learning time to make up, with one study from the Northwest Evaluation Association estimating that they will retain just 70 percent of their learning gains in reading compared to a typical year, and less than 50 percent of their learning gains in math; in some cases, students could return nearly a full year behind in math. This will be on top of widespread trauma and social and emotional needs that go beyond what schools have previously confronted on a nationwide scale. Schools and districts will need to provide summer school, extended learning time programs, and more nonacademic supports than usual. AmeriCorps members provide additional capacity for this system-wide response, working hand in hand with districts, schools, and their host organizations.
In the health sector, current and former leaders of the Centers for Disease Control have identified the need for an “army” of contact tracers to aid in the recovery. Contact tracers will interview those who have been infected with COVID-19 to determine who around them might have been exposed, and will warn these contacts to keep an eye out for symptoms. This is labor-intensive work for which we don’t currently have the workforce: one study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) estimates we will need at least an additional 100,000 individual contract tracers, and potentially as many as 265,000. This work, while critical, does not require public health expertise. Based on previous WHO guidance on needed skills and expectations, and more recent recommendations by John Hopkins and ASTHO, people with a high school degree or beyond can receive the necessary training, management and support to be effective contact tracers. Additional AmeriCorps or NCCC members could be trained to fill this essential gap, working as part of a CDC Corps (modeled after the existing FEMA Corps), or with state health departments, local health departments, or nonprofits in partnership with states.
National Service to Support Employment
In addition to the direct services corps members will provide to recovering communities, growing national service would also get more young people employed in productive jobs. The unemployment rate is shooting to all-time highs, with ten times as many claims filed in just the first week of the crisis as the previous record; three weeks in, over sixteen million people have already filed for unemployment. Out of the many millions of people who are or will soon become unemployed, young people will suffer disproportionately because of preexisting economic precarity, being at an earlier stage in their careers, and the jobs they tend to hold. Nearly half (9.2 million) of the 19.3 million workers ages 16 to 24 are employed in service sector establishments. While young people make up 12 percent of the employed population overall, they make up 24 percent of workers in the industries most impacted by COVID-19. Perhaps foreseeing this future—as well as the long-term challenges this crisis is likely to create for them—data shows young people are extremely concerned about the crisis. According to recent data from More in Common, 83 percent of people aged 18 to 29 believe the United States is likely to enter a depression; and 68 percent believe we are likely to experience a significant food shortage, more than any other age group, with 82 percent of black young people believing this.
The future looks dire for these young people, but AmeriCorps could cover living experiences for a year, pay for future higher education or pay off college loans, and provide meaningful, skill-building professional experience focused on rebuilding communities. Judging by what happened during the Great Recession, we know that many young people will look to AmeriCorps during this crisis. Between 2009 and 2011, annual application numbers to the program rose from approximately 360,000 to more than 582,000. Yet, only 82,500 AmeriCorps slots were available in 2011, including part-time positions.
National Service as a Talent Pipeline to Public Service
Finally, national service is an effective talent pipeline to the public sector—a pipeline we will need now more than ever. As many have noted, government has massively exacerbated this crisis, through incompetence, indecision, and intentional, harmful policy decisions and at the same time, provides our only path to addressing it. While the federal government response has overall been too little, too late, state and local actors have stepped up to protect their communities, with nonprofits right there alongside them. This recovery we will enter will be more challenging at every level than anything we have seen in decades—and the effectiveness of the public sector, and quality of public sector talent, will be critical to that recovery’s success.
Government has massively exacerbated this crisis, through incompetence, indecision, and intentional harmful policy decisions and at the same time, provides our only path to addressing it.
AmeriCorps programs have long been a talent pipeline to public service and the nonprofit sector. Young people who have served in AmeriCorps are more likely to engage in their community post-service (79 percent compared to 47 percent), more likely to vote than others (94 percent are registered to vote), and more like to have careers in public service (60 percent, according to an older study). AmeriCorps alumni have become some of our country’s leading social entrepreneurs, and have supported the organizational growth of others.
We can prevent this crisis from becoming a full-on catastrophe, but doing so will require genuine investment in providing employment and in alleviating the damage COVID-19 is wreaking on communities. Stabilizing and expanding AmeriCorps can help us achieve both of these goals.
header photo: Volunteers load food into a recipient’s trunk at a Food Bank distribution for those in need as the coronavirus pandemic continues in Van Nuys, California. Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images