The Young, Low-Wage, Temporary Disaster Relief Army
Ray Bonner, an AmeriCorps member, organizes volunteers at a warehouse in Franklin Township, New Jersey, to assist with Superstorm Sandy relief. (Max Rivlin-Nadler)
Nearly one year ago, Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast. Within days, utility workers, police officers and volunteers swarmed the flooded and sand-strewn streets of the Rockaway Peninsula in southeastern Queens. At the base of one of the two clogged bridges leading to the Rockaways, a group of young people in bright-blue jackets emblazoned FEMA Corps unloaded a truck full of supplies, gave directions to victims looking for shelter and provided logistical support to the fledgling efforts of the federal relief apparatus. Those in FEMA Corps were among the first “boots on the ground” in what has been a $60 billion federal investment in Sandy recovery. Part of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), which in turn is part of AmeriCorps, the FEMA Corps members were representatives of a quiet move by the government to put young, quickly trained volunteers at the forefront of disaster relief.
As a member of an AmeriCorps NCCC team, Alex Slater, who was 19 when I spoke with him for this article, spent the better part of a year crisscrossing the country building houses, repairing parks and working with community groups. His team, designated Delta 7, was working with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans when Sandy hit the East Coast. Within hours, they were in their van headed north, without even knowing their exact destination. “Once we saw how bad the storm was going to be,” Slater says, “we knew we were probably going to be hitting the road.”
Slater’s team settled in at a Red Cross center in Franklin Township, New Jersey, where they managed the massive warehouse—filled with cleaning supplies, food and clothing purchased by the Red Cross and the federal government—and coordinated the delivery of goods to affected areas. The center was filled with volunteers, with just a few Red Cross staffers and AmeriCorps members to run the site. NCCC member Kimmy Mauldin, 24, scribbled a note and tacked it to a board that tracked outgoing deliveries to the New Jersey coast. “Post-it Notes helped save the Northeast,” she joked, rushing back to the computer console where she monitored the needs of other AmeriCorps-run relief centers.
AmeriCorps was founded twenty years ago, in 1993, after Congress passed the Bill Clinton–backed National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service, a government organization that administers three AmeriCorps programs. Every year, AmeriCorps NCCC places 1,000 young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 in groups that travel the country providing service and disaster relief. AmeriCorps State and National allocates grants to states to fund nonprofits and government organizations that hire their own AmeriCorps members—70,000 in total—to do everything from tutoring to social work. VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), an AmeriCorps program with roots in the Kennedy administration, trains its 8,000 members to focus on capacity-building. A direct descendant of the New Deal, AmeriCorps has flourished despite ceaseless conservative attacks on the program and its funding.
Kimmy Mauldin, who graduated from college with a degree in religion, had trouble finding a job in her hometown of Dallas. A friend encouraged her to move to Washington State, where she joined VISTA, before going on to work for NCCC. Mauldin was drawn to AmeriCorps for the same reasons I was (I served from 2010 to 2011): a dearth of jobs for recent graduates and a commitment to service that was instilled through high school service requirements. Anxiety about student debt was another motivation. AmeriCorps members receive an education award at the end of their service that can be used to pay off existing student loans or to fund more education; in 2012, the award was $5,550.
Alex Slater took a different path to AmeriCorps. After dropping out of high school to take care of his grandmother in Baltimore, he enrolled in Job Corps, a Great Society program, also inspired by the New Deal but unaffiliated with AmeriCorps. He earned his GED while working, and after he completed the Job Corps program, his counselor suggested AmeriCorps NCCC as a way to travel the country while helping people. Slater joked with volunteers as he unloaded supplies in Jersey City, where survivors of the storm queued for clean-up kits and shovels. A few moments after his truck pulled up, a huge crowd gathered. “This is a typical day here,” Slater told me, pointing to the impatient line. He had already signed on to do another year with AmeriCorps when his assignment finished in December. (AmeriCorps NCCC members can stay with the program for a maximum of two years. Other AmeriCorps programs permit stints of up to five years.)
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Through AmeriCorps, the government is not encouraging private sector growth or subsidizing loans, but rather directly funding jobs—albeit temporary ones—putting young Americans to work on badly depleted infrastructure and desperately needed public services. For decades, conservative ideologues have rejected the idea of the government as a viable employer, ignoring the success of programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority in moving millions of Americans out of abject poverty in the 1930s. Putting 3.3 million Americans to work during the worst of the Great Depression, the WPA focused on employing young people and minorities, both of whom had been especially hard-hit. The WPA itself employed no more than 30 percent of the nation’s jobless, but GDP rose during eight of its nine years of existence. AmeriCorps, like the WPA, offers young Americans an opportunity to begin paying off student debt while navigating a grim job market. It also gives them the chance to develop skills in areas like teaching, emergency management and wildlife conservation.
Jesse Montgomery, 26, was an AmeriCorps member in 2011, working as a writing tutor in a high school in northeast Philadelphia. “I was a recent college graduate working in a bike shop for $8 an hour and bracing myself for the moment my student loans would kick in when I got an interview for AmeriCorps,” he says. “I’d spent weeks sending out applications to all sorts of jobs—jobs I wasn’t even interested in—with little response.” His placement was challenging—the school where he tutored was overcrowded and underfunded—but he learned how to work with young people who had grown up in underserved communities. That led him to the two jobs he has held since AmeriCorps: first, as a teaching assistant at a camp for gifted youth, and second, as an after-school leader at a Philadelphia neighborhood library.
All AmeriCorps members receive a low stipend—most earn under $250 per week—and many are eligible for food stamps. (For AmeriCorps members in cities like New York and San Francisco, where the stipend does not reflect the cost of living, food benefits are often a necessity.) The stipend is maintained just above poverty level, both to instill in AmeriCorps members a better understanding of the communities they work with and to keep the program’s costs low. AmeriCorps volunteers quickly become acquainted with the antiquated benefits system. “The offices are underequipped, and the demand is totally overwhelming,” Montgomery says. “It’s always impossible to get a caseworker on the phone; pay stubs and bank statements get lost; and benefits get turned off without warning.” But he knows that his experience was just a glimpse into the poverty experienced by others. “Trying to secure benefits for yourself in order to augment the low wage of AmeriCorps can be incredibly frustrating,” he says, “but I can’t imagine the anxiety and insecurity inflicted upon whole families by the strained system.”
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