There are so many wildly upsetting cuts in Trump’s budget proposal that it’s almost impossible to determine which one is the most cruel.
Somewhere near the top of that very long list should be the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees both SeniorCorps and AmeriCorps, one of America’s largest community service organizations. Even if you haven’t heard of AmeriCorps, chances are you benefited from it and didn’t even realize it. Maybe you walked on a trail some AmeriCorps member cleared for you free of charge, or attended a cheesy but helpful after-school program that some service member spent weeks planning without your knowledge.
By eliminating AmeriCorps, Trump doesn’t just put the most vulnerable Americans at risk (again), he creates the possibility that a generation of young people might not enter politics or a career in public service.
The majority of people who serve in AmeriCorps are young people
Since its inception in 1994, over 1 million people people have served in AmeriCorps, many of whom are fresh out of high school or college. 90 percent of current serving members are under 65 years old, and 65 percent are just under twenty-five. It’s a program made for people just beginning their careers and capable of living at poverty-level wages for a year, folks who’ve never heard the phrase “burn out.”
Shortly after my 21st birthday, I too joined AmeriCorps and went to work at a juvenile detention facility to help administer an after-school arts program.
Of course, I was 21 and scarily under-qualified for the position. Inside the center, I was, for some reason, given free reign to teach classes in whatever I wanted, including: “Baton Twirling for Beginners,” “Spice Girls Choreography” and “Dave Chapelle skits you should know by heart.” I made giant errors along the way, including feeding my incarcerated intern so many donuts he became sick and accidentally (while looking for bouncy balls) locking myself in a maximum security unit for hours.
Over time, thank God, I slowly improved and actually got in the real business of helping people. Sure, it would have been better had someone with extensive experience or a social work degree taken on my role (At a subsidy of approximately $9,900 per year, that wasn’t about to happen). Of course, my site couldn’t break the cycle of recidivism for every single participating client. AmeriCorps alone wasn’t enough to lift whole communities out of poverty, a criticism levied by those on the far right and the far left alike.
But at least it gave them something: a service or an opportunity or a chance to make a meaningful relationship with an adult who actually cared. AmeriCorps’ primary mission is to help communities in need but by giving them meaningful experience (and educational awards/money for college) it also indirectly serves the people who set out to help them, too.
AmeriCorps encouraged young people to pursue a life in public service
At my site, we all knew that the program wasn’t enough to break the cycle of poverty, which is why so many of my fellow AmeriCorps members in my program later took up a career in public service or continued to volunteer.
“My experience with AmeriCorps was transformative,” Alison Brockhouse, a fellow AmeriCorps VISTA who became a teacher, said. “It was my first real job out of college, it was my introduction to public service, and it shaped my views on issues like education and incarceration. I also received an AmeriCorps-funded grant that helped pay for my Master’s in teaching.”
There was no way I could finish my AmeriCorps year and start a career in publishing, the way I initially planned. You can’t watch a skinny 13-year-old kid get sentenced to prison or an 18-year-old kid get discharged to homelessness and just walk away, your tour in poverty complete. The experience was as empowering as it was profoundly haunting. It felt irresponsible not to help in some way wherever I went, for the rest of my adult life.
So instead, I became a social worker for almost 10 years. It was never my initial intention. According to AmeriCorps, many service members followed the same path: 80 percent of Corps alumni plan to become actively involved in their community post-service, compared to 47 percent at the beginning of their service. For many people, particularly young people, it’s the first stop on a long path to public service.
“AmeriCorps was a way to be patriotic without joining the military or taking up politics,” Merrari McKinney, a fellow VISTA who now works in city government, said.
These experiences stick.
The program appeals to millennials across the political spectrum
Even though AmeriCorps might seem like a liberal initiative, the program actually enjoys bipartisan support. Just last week, a group of Republican politicians and donors signed a letter urging Donald Trump not to end the program.
“As Republicans, we support the critical goal of eliminating government waste, the authors wrote. But as conservatives who believe in the unifying, patriotic values of national service, we urge you to support the Corporation for National and Community Service.
In my brief time in AmeriCorps, I met young people from all across the political spectrum: religious conservatives who loved to volunteer, liberals who wanted to transform the system and radicals who wanted to overhaul it. Of course, the nature of the program limited who could serve: AmeriCorps didn’t have enough money to offer members anything but very low stipends (Full time members are currently paid $12,530 per year). Still, AmeriCorps was the one place where I could meet young people who I often disagreed with politically, but who were all in some way sensitive to other people’s pain.
In a time of such entrenched political polarization, when millennials from different parts of the country can barely speak to each other on Facebook, it seems strange that a volunteer-driven program would be first on the chopping block.
So why cut it?
For White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, it seems, the program doesn’t seem to offer enough benefits. At a press conference on Thursday, Mulvaney suggested that after-school programs that help kids get fed many of which AmeriCorps help support don’t actually help people in need.
Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that CNCS programs help communities in need. More than 40,000 AmeriCorps volunteers helped clean up Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and stayed in the region, leading to what social scientists call “brain gain,” Americorps reports. Habitat for Humanity affiliates that work with AmeriCorps build seven more homes on average per year and have 70 percent more volunteers.
But the data only matters if the people they involve do, too. From Meals on Wheels to PBS to AmeriCorps, the administration’s budget cuts disproportionately affects data-driven, evidence-based programs that help low-income communities. Communities whose needs are historically always on the chopping block.
It’s hard not to see this as an attack on a whole demographic of people with little voice in government, as well as the young people who want to help give them that voice, and make it even louder.