Does Sequester Undermine AmeriCorps as Service Career Pipeline?

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March 18, 2013; Source: Redwood Times

AmeriCorps Week was last week. Press stories largely shared the tenor of this Redwood Times story from Humboldt County, Calif. lauding the work of AmeriCorps member Josh Stanley, who helps coordinate a pediatric clinic at the Southern Humboldt Family Resource Center. In Newburgh, N.Y., the AmeriCorps week coverage included a description of AmeriCorps members working with Habitat for Humanity to relocate a community garden. Meanwhile, the Baxter Bulletin lauded Heather Powell, an AmeriCorps volunteer working as a multi-lingual tutor at the Twin Lakes Literacy Council in Mountain Home, Ark.

No one can legitimately doubt the enthusiasm and commitment of most of the stipended volunteers working as AmeriCorps volunteers. But the celebration of AmeriCorps Week was drowned out a bit last week by the nation’s continuing budget and sequestration stalemate, which raises questions about the contours of the program going forward.

On the website of the Center for American Progress, a liberal-left think tank, Zach Murray writes about the “devastating cuts for national service” due to sequestration. In Murray’s conception, the importance of AmeriCorps is more than simply putting stipended volunteers to work for human service organizations. “Through commitments of human and financial capital, AmeriCorps already boosts the talent-development capacity of nonprofits across the United States,” he writes. “Many AmeriCorps alumni continue their civic engagement after participating in the program, through careers in government and the nonprofit sector and as social entrepreneurs representing the next generation of public servants.”

Last week, Debra Eschmeyer of FoodCorps wrote that AmeriCorps is a “cost-effective” response to community needs. Therein may be part of the challenge for Murray’s notion that AmeriCorps can be a tool for “building upon the existing potential of service to fulfill the talent needs of the public-service field.” AmeriCorps members are paid minimal wages, hardly the image of even entry-level positions toward a nonprofit career. In many cases, AmeriCorps members are tossed into service delivery jobs without much training in the hope, frequently but not always borne out, that their commitment and enthusiasm plus strong support for their community-based nonprofit sponsors will help them succeed. Over the long run, however, both nonprofit and public sector careers need sustainable salary paths and serious training in professional skills.

The AmeriCorps model provides incentives for young people, in particular, to test themselves in community-based service settings. It exposes them to concepts of community service. But is the concept of low-wage, stipended volunteerism an on-ramp for young people to see the nonprofit sector as a career path with family-sustaining salaries and professional advancement? Does the threat—or actuality, as it is now—of sequestration and future budget cuts further challenge what AmeriCorps might be able to achieve as a pipeline to public service? How can AmeriCorps weather the storm and adjust to the national budget picture to better function as a talent pool for nonprofit and public service job needs? —Rick Cohen

  • Rusty Morgen Stahl

    Rick: Thank you for raising an important set of issues. I am an AmeriCorps alum (1995-96) who has gone on to study the sector (at Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy) and crafted a career in nonprofits and philanthropy since I entered the workforce in 2000. In my case, I would say AmeriCorps was not the cause of my career but contributed greatly toward it through additional exposure, paid time to do nonprofit work during college, gaining skills in human services and volunteer management (my AmeriCorps partner Julie and I managed over 30 student volunteers to deliver meals, groceries and social visits to homebound elderly in DC’s Foggy Bottom and Shaw neighborhoods).

    I have always felt that AmeriCorps is one important ways that government creates an alternative approach to “national service” that is non-military based. (i.e. it is legitimate as a proud patriot for the government to support us in serving our country by helping our fellow citizens and building up our communities, rather than strategically killing other country’s citizenry and bombing their communities.)

    And serving as an AmeriCorps member is certainly a big step up in pay, training and dignity from life as an unpaid intern. Unfortunately, the unpaid or under-paid internship is the default point of entry for nonprofit jobs and careers. This “try before you buy” may help a nonprofit employer in the short term, but it severely limits the demographics of those with access to nonprofit jobs and careers, namely people who can afford college, and who can afford to not get paid for work.

    Contrary to the common perception of community service as a white suburbanites coming into urban communities of color (which, no doubt, is part of the reality), AmeriCorps actually has done a terrific job of recruiting diverse people into the field, particularly through programs such as Public Allies, Youth Build and City Year, which effectively engage, train and empower young potential leaders of color who may not have been on the college or career track.

    By infusing the AmeriCorps experience with a robust career counseling agenda, emphasizing the opportunities and challenges of nonprofit careers, the Corporation for National and Community Service could create a powerful bridge between a year of service and a life of service in the social sector.

  • Susan Chavez

    As someone from a low-income background who once aspired to a career in the legal sector, I owe my career in the nonprofit sector to AmeriCorps. All the legal internships that I was interested while I was an undergraduate were unpaid. It was only because of a paid internship through my university’s public service center and my later service with AmeriCorps, that I decided to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector instead.

    Frankly, there aren’t many alternatives to the AmeriCorps model aside from unpaid internships in the nonprofit sector. And not everyone can afford to work for free. The alternative also doesn’t give young people access to the wide network of AmeriCorps alumni – a network that I and many alumni have found beneficial to our careers.

    AmeriCorps has weathered tough storms before and I hope it will continue to do so in the future.