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