The Young, Low-Wage, Temporary Disaster Relief Army
The reliance of AmeriCorps members on the government for employment as well as supplemental assistance has aroused the ire of conservatives—Michelle Malkin has labeled it “FoodStampCorps,” and a 2010 Washington Times editorial bore the headline Rotten to the AmeriCorps. Cutting AmeriCorps’s funding has been a persistent rallying cry among deficit hawks; in his 2013 budget, Paul Ryan called for the elimination of the entire Corporation for National and Community Service. The federal budget sequester cut 4,200 AmeriCorps positions at a time when the program was supposed to be growing: in 2009, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which would not only increase the amount of the education award but also expand AmeriCorps to more than 250,000 members by 2017. Supporters of the bill envisioned it as the greatest expansion of national service since the Great Depression. But the bill has failed to reach its goals—by a considerable degree. “The Kennedy Serve America Act has not even started down the road that it wanted to when it was signed,” says Shirley Sagawa, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who studies national service. “We’re pretty much at—or even below—where we were in terms of numbers when the Obama administration began. It is a huge disappointment, especially because AmeriCorps [pays] a double bottom-line dividend, by helping people who want to serve as well as helping communities.” But with Congress holding the purse strings tight, AmeriCorps has grown by only 8,000 positions, and further expansion is hard to imagine.
AmeriCorps’s emerging role in federal disaster response makes the situation even more difficult. Spurred by the acute need for disaster relief, FEMA Corps was founded last year by FEMA and the Corporation for National and Community Service. It pays young people to travel the country responding to disaster after disaster. “In the summer of 2011, there was pretty much a disaster a week”—the tornadoes that struck Joplin, Missouri; Hurricane Irene; historic wildfires in the Southwest—“and FEMA kept using our teams,” says Kate Raftery, the national director of the NCCC. “Immediately after Sandy, AmeriCorps members were helping and registering survivors weeks before FEMA had their field office up and running. We’re building a next generation of workforce for FEMA.” The approval for FEMA Corps came directly from President Obama, who, sitting in on a meeting of disaster relief specialists at the White House, seized on FEMA deputy administrator Richard Serino’s idea for FEMA’s own NCCC division. “Corps members, quite often, are one of the first people a disaster survivor will see from the federal government,” Serino says.
But survivors of a natural disaster might not be reassured that the first responders from the government are low-paid temporary workers. The budget sequester cut FEMA’s funding by $928 million, with the bulk of the cuts coming out of the agency’s disaster relief programs. Some experts are disturbed by the use of untrained youth as first responders instead of qualified professionals, especially as a generation of graduates with degrees in disaster management has been shut out of FEMA jobs by the budget cuts. “FEMA is the one that dreamed up this whole higher-education initiative to get institutions to teach risk analysis, leadership and assessment skills at the graduate level,” says Claire Rubin, a social scientist affiliated with George Washington University who has thirty-five years’ experience in emergency management. “But now we’re getting 18- to 24-year-olds who aren’t educated, and I, for one, don’t think on-the-job training for pretty horrific situations is the best way to get young people interested and trained in disaster relief.”
Emily Danielson studied the impact of AmeriCorps in post-Katrina New Orleans for her master’s thesis at the University of New Orleans. “When things are at their worst—when Hurricane Katrina hit, when Hurricane Sandy hit—you want the best people. AmeriCorps sends nice people,” she says. “It was a slap in the face for many of the folks down here that they sent people down with so little experience, when there are so many people with more experience.”
But with the gutting of FEMA under the Bush administration, FEMA officials argue, the agency needs to scale up as quickly as possible. “For many years, emergency management was looked at as a second career,” says Serino, “and one thing we have to do is make it into a career. FEMA Corps is a way people can get involved, get hands-on experience and then have an opportunity to work for FEMA.” Rubin counters that the pipeline to a career in disaster management is broken. “Reservists who traditionally do the work are lucky if they make $30 an hour,” she says. AmeriCorps members typically make around $6 an hour. “If your goal is to throw warm bodies out there, you’re going to throw cheap bodies. I’m deeply troubled by this, having devoted a large part of my career to having people adequately trained. Why are people getting doctoral and master’s degrees when apparently, according to FEMA, they can just learn this on the job?” On message boards, FEMA reservists, many of whom have years of experience, have expressed dissatisfaction that some of their duties are now being done by FEMA Corps members.
FEMA Corps’s first disaster season was marked by miscommunication with other disaster relief groups, as well as misunderstanding between groups over what they should be doing and how they could help. More than 3,600 AmeriCorps members were part of the Sandy relief efforts, and many of them stayed on at assignments well into 2013. Responding to critiques made by disaster relief experts, an AmeriCorps spokesperson wrote that “FEMA Corps members receive extensive training, from both FEMA and NCCC, to prepare them for their assignments,” including an “intensive FEMA training” focused on skills for disaster response.
Often, the government doesn’t get to a disaster zone quickly enough. During the lag between Superstorm Sandy and the arrival of federal assistance, volunteers—many organized under the Occupy Sandy umbrella—began helping storm victims on the damaged shores of New York City. Occupy Sandy was impressively effective in a dense city, but it is not a sustainable model for volunteer management—it just won’t work in remote areas with extensive devastation. The non–FEMA Corps members of AmeriCorps can help with that: they will now be tasked with organizing volunteers and maximizing their usefulness. AmeriCorps has been at the forefront of such efforts during past disasters, filling a blind spot of FEMA and the Red Cross, which are reluctant to work with spontaneous volunteers. In the aftermath of the tornadoes in Joplin, AmeriCorps organized over 75,000 volunteers. It can be difficult to find something substantial for volunteers to do in the few free hours they have, but AmeriCorps members make the most of them. Ray Bonner, 20, a member of Delta 7, organized a group of volunteers in assembling care kits that would be sent out later that day. He plans to use his education award to go to college and calls joining AmeriCorps “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
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Studies by Peter Frumkin, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-author of a book about AmeriCorps, have shown that AmeriCorps is a remarkably cost-effective program—not only for the experience it provides young people, but for the impressive return that comes from a modest investment. According to the Government Accountability Office, for every dollar spent on the program by the government, AmeriCorps members provide up to $3 in service. (Taxpayers can thank the very low wages: “AmeriCorps is bringing in people who are already engaged and not people who are disenfranchised instead, and the low stipend is a huge reason for this,” Frumkin notes.) “AmeriCorps is important for the nation because we have a lot of problems that need human-capital solutions,” Sagawa says. “We need people to bring their talents to communities that need it, and at the same time, we have so many young people who are not working.”
Young Americans getting paid very little to perform essential work for the government: AmeriCorps is at once a real opportunity and a symptom of austerity. Its members are either being offered a pathway to a career—or they’re being used to lower the cost of social services for a government devoted to budget-cutting. Or, more likely, both.
Last fall Allison Kilkenny blogged about the young volunteers who aided survivors of the superstorm, in dispatches such as “Occupy Sandy Efforts Highlight Need for Solidarity, Not Charity.”