Wrong Target

The Republican Case for Saving Americorps

I was dubious when George W. Bush put me in charge of the agency administering AmeriCorps. But I saw the good in it—and we made it better. The administration should spare it.

Michael Nagle/Getty

Last week, The New York Times and other publications reported that the White House had drafted a spending blueprint that would cut funding for a number of domestic programs, including the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). CNCS is the federal agency responsible for administering AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, which provide opportunities for volunteers to participate in results-driven service at nonprofits, local agencies, schools, and faith-based and community groups across the country. With national service programs under renewed scrutiny, the following question has been raised: Should we prioritize national and community service within a Republican budget?

In January 2001, I had just finished as the chief domestic policy adviser for the Bush 2000 campaign and found myself in a conversation with the president and top incoming officials about the future of what then was the Corporation for National Service. Republicans had been deeply distrustful of it as the parent entity of AmeriCorps and Senior Service programs, for several reasons including that President Clinton had promoted and prominently featured the program.

At the time, I suggested that perhaps the real issue we should address involved what the organization could and should be doing, rather than whether it should exist at all. Because of that suggestion, I found myself abruptly nominated by the president as chairman of its board and tasked with reinvigorating and refocusing it. CNCS seemed to me to have three problems: inadequate administration, not enough variety in its programming to allow for adequate representation of small and faith-based organizations, and even more fundamentally a lack of a compelling rationale for its existence.

Let’s start with the existential question first: Why should it exist? Before taking the job of chair, I had completed eight years as mayor of Indianapolis, where we took on an ambitious effort to bring hope and renewal to long-neglected urban communities, with explicit attention to both the De Tocquevillian homage to the American miracle of local action and the small platoons first mentioned by English political philosopher Edmund Burke. In other words, the Indianapolis experience was rooted in how local government could support the civic infrastructure necessary for vibrant communities.

That thought process affected the transformation of CNCS over the nine years that I served as board chair. We changed the name of the organization from the Corporation for National Service to the Corporation for National and Community Service. We rethought its very mission and clarified its goal as supporting local communities and in a deeply respectful way. Instead of announcing federal programs that cities had to adopt, we supported the local volunteerism agenda which within limits, would be generated from grassroots organizations.

Conservatives had a legitimate point in their objections that a program that involved the national government in local volunteer efforts raised fundamental federalism questions. We promoted the new model more aggressively to small and faith-based organizations involved in secular community restoration activities. With this redirection, the federal government would provide cities and states with the human infrastructure needed to support and manage local volunteers. This better route gave states greater flexibility in using the program’s resources, and focus on engaging AmeriCorps members in helping local groups recruit and train volunteers. We increased the mix of part-time support to align our money with our philosophy and today governor-appointed state service commissions control two-thirds of AmeriCorps funding.

This respect for local decision-making will of course, lead to occasional unfortunate moments. There will always be some local group that involves itself in an unfortunate cause (politics is barred), does not keep its books correctly, or worse. New management eventually got the administrative problems under control and we committed the federal government to balancing a respectful insistence on integrity with ensuring easy-to-follow compliance.

There are a few ways to measure the progress. Participation in community service by those who are unemployed increases by 26 percent the likelihood that they will obtain employment. Alums of the programs stay more civically involved for life. The programs now enjoy broader support. A recent survey by TargetPoint Consulting showed 80 percent of voters and 74 percent of Republicans agreeing that federal investment should continue. Return on investment continues to improve as well. Columbia University researchers estimated that every dollar invested in national service programs results in a $3.95 return to society in higher earnings, increased output, and other community-wide benefits (PDF). And for every $10 in federal expenditures AmeriCorps raises $15 from private grants. AmeriCorps alone, not counting Senior Programs, channeled 1 million American volunteers and 1.4 billion hours of their service to more than 1100 community organizations and faith-based groups.

AmeriCorps’ reach and breadth improved as we hoped 16 years ago, ranging from urban and rural initiatives to work with veterans and disaster response. The AmeriCorps Urban Safety Corps in Detroit was a bipartisan initiative launched by Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Democratic Mayor Dave Bing, and hosted by Wayne State University, to increase public safety in targeted neighborhoods. AmeriCorps members engaged with community groups to form block clubs and resident patrols, recruit landlords and tenants for safety and revitalization projects, and establish safe daily commutes to schools for students. In the areas where AmeriCorps volunteers served, crime declined by 26 percent and 58 percent in Midtown.

After a downturn in the coal economy in eastern Kentucky, AmeriCorps partnered with Shaping Our Appalachian Region in assisting dozens of local nonprofits to support job creation and entrepreneurship. More than 25,000 people have received job training and placement services, including hundreds of unemployed coal miners, and more than 4,000 veterans and military families have received assistance.

AmeriCorps and Senior Corps serve more than 750,000 veterans and military families, and 23,000 veterans serve in these programs, applying the skills they gained in the military to tackle problems on the home front. AmeriCorps volunteers have also been indispensable in the aftermath of countless disasters—including Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy; the Flint water crisis; the floods in Louisiana, Michigan, and Colorado; the wildfires in Tennessee; and the BP oil spill—providing manpower, supply distribution, donations management, public information outreach, and needs assessment. In the case of emergency management, AmeriCorps immediately amplifies the capacity of organizations on the ground. As a result of all this steady progress bipartisan support for this highly competitive grant program has grown.

With so much to be done but with budget resources restrained the same question I was asked all those years ago, as domestic policy adviser for President Bush’s campaign, arises again today—within a Republican budget, should we keep or kill CNCS? My response would be the same today as it was back then: We should keep CNCS, and make sure the vision is clear, that the spending priorities by CNCS support the vision and further the principles of service and local control. Results should be measured by increases in service and volunteerism and people—young and old—whose lives are bettered through acts which in turn strengthen an informed citizenship and democracy.

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Stephen Goldsmith is professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School and formerly mayor of Indianapolis, deputy mayor of New York City, and chairman of CNCS.