May 6, 2009

AmeriCorps & Civil Service: There's More To Be Done

Slight tweaks could go a long way.

Jo posted yesterday about an on-going discussion we’ve been having. Bread for the City has seven stipended volunteers on staff, either through AmeriCorps or a Volunteer Corps, doing work in almost every program we offer. And in the wake of the Serve America Act, we’ve been talking about ways these civil service programs could be improved. Though Jo was writing primarily about education awards, there is another part of the equation—the monthly stipend.

The Edward Kennedy Serve America Act plans, by 2017, to open AmeriCorps from its present 75,000 slots to 250,000 slots. Though allowing more people to join will help AmeriCorps, and will therefore help direct-service non-profits like us, this alone doesn’t take sufficient steps to make these service opportunities more enticing, effective, and rewarding.

Most AmeriCorps members can look forward to a monthly stipend of about $800 dollars a month. Even if a person is able to find some type of housing for $500 a month (I’m assuming this person is living in a group home, lives in a region not near a metro, lives in substandard conditions, or a mix of all three), that means all of the other expenses per month have to equal $300. We’ve heard from a number of partner organizations that AmeriCorps members have had to work second jobs, rack up huge credit card debt, or terminate their service year early because they couldn’t make ends meet. This is obviously bad news for the participant, who walks away with a negative experience; and it’s also bad news for the non-profit, since it prevents the AmeriCorps member from focusing their full attention to the work they have a passion for and signed up to do.

One easy fix I can see is to open up AmeriCorps funding to locally directed block grants that can be used to support Volunteer Corps stipends. AmeriCorps already handles all of the education awards for Volunteer Corps, so directing money to stipends is not a far stretch.

In a Volunteer Corps, participants still live very simply – with low enough incomes, as Jo wrote, to qualify for food stamps. But they are provided with housing and a support structure. These local groups are already active, are highly competitive, and (as Jo points out) offer much more support than a traditional AmeriCorps slot. Instead of expanding AmeriCorps slots while Volunteer Corps organizations have to continue to raise their own funds, why not direct some of that money to the pre-existing structures that are better equipped to provide a meaningful service experience? We could create better civil service opportunities, faster, with the same amount of funding.


Making Life Easier said...

Are there other postions with Americorps? I definitely am interested as a commuity activist

Matt Siemer said...

Hey Making Life Easier,

There are a number of positions with AmeriCorps, some of which were recently expanded/created by the new legislation. If you're a young person (6th to 12th grade), you could participate in a Semester of Service.

If you're a senior citizen, you could enroll in Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions, and there's also a more expansive "SeniorCorps" that you could also enroll in.

For people post-college there are tons of AmeriCorps opportunities, most of which have the basic structure I listed in the post (small monthly stipend and education award at the end). NCCC, VISTA, and a number of other outlets are available through the AmeriCorps website.