On the 100th day of Bill Clinton’s administration, the president spoke at the University of New Orleans in front of a banner the size of a school bus reading “National Service Means Educational Opportunity.” There, he charted a future for young people where a robust national service program went hand-in-hand with the promise of higher education. In 1993, he signed the National and Community Service Trust Act, creating the AmeriCorps program. Upon signing the bill, he cited a “commitment to national service as a part of our drive to make college education affordable” alongside a “deeper desire to bring the American community back together.”
But the program never lived up to this vision. Today, AmeriCorps, a work program that seeks “to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering,” recruits recent college graduates to do short-term, nonprofit work in low-income communities. A federal program that employs over 70,000 young Americans annually, AmeriCorps offers a stipend at poverty wages along with an education award of $6,495 at the end of a 12-month term that can be applied to student loans.
Earlier this year, President Biden announced that his administration was investing in AmeriCorps in a big way. His proposed 2023 budget includes $1.34 billion in funding for the agency, a 16 percent increase compared to the year before. Additionally, AmeriCorps and the Department of Education announced a partnership, with the Biden administration aiming to recruit 250,000 members to help students with “learning loss” over the next three years. AmeriCorps officials say they are focused on the “critical issues of our time—public health, climate and the environment, and education and economic opportunity.” But is investing more in AmeriCorps the best way to address these issues?
In American politics, service has often been tied up with educational opportunities. Most can point to the 1944 GI Bill, which immediately doubled the number of college graduates. But predating that was the Civilian Conservation Corps, created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Young men were paid to construct trails and plant more than 3 billion trees nationwide for six to 18 months. In return, they received vocational and literacy education. It’s estimated that some 57,000 men learned to read as CCC workers.
Following Roosevelt’s New Deal, John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 in response to the Soviet Union’s legions of professional men and women “prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism.” Kennedy sought to create a system of volunteerism for recent college graduates. Despite criticisms of its high price tag and role as an agent of cultural colonialism, the program continues to deploy thousands of volunteers a year.
Soon after, Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” created Volunteers in Service to America, National Teacher Corps and the Job Corps through the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Like the state of service today, these programs failed to provide permanent public jobs—instead offering living allowances and trainings. As an age of austerity and neoliberalism followed, public service continued to be firmly detached from its New Deal origins.
Today, the bi-partisan legacy of volunteerism has largely been transformed into low-wage national service while critical social programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, that benefit both volunteers and those who they serve are cut to the bone.
AmeriCorps has not become a panacea for poverty, nor has it drastically improved college affordability. In the Clinton era, college officials asserted that the cost of funding one service member was roughly equivalent to five new Pell Grants. In 2022, the Pell Grant, a need-based grant awarded to low-income college students, is still used as a measuring stick. The Segal Education Award for the completion of service is equivalent to the maximum value of a Pell Grant. Over the past 25 years, the award has increased from $4,725 to $6,495. When the average borrower carried less than $10,000 of debt at the time, these original award amounts made sense. Now, the average student loan balance stands above $30,000.
Six months after graduating college, I found myself teaching GED test prep at an outpatient addiction recovery facility. This was not necessarily out of passion as much as a desperate attempt to pay off thousands of dollars of student debt. That year, my coworkers and I in the East Garfield neighborhood of Chicago started a food pantry, coordinated hundreds of Covid vaccines and supported those in recovery during some of the most isolating months of our collective lives—all for subminimum wage through AmeriCorps’ VISTA program. Unsure if Biden would cancel student debt or when my loans would begin accruing interest again, I applied my Segal Education award to my outstanding balance immediately after completing my AmeriCorps service term.
Serving in Chicago during the height of the pandemic, the living stipend came out to about $1,000 a month or $36.71 a day as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. While these living allowances have increased around 24 percent under President Biden, they still hover around $6 an hour, below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and half of the minimum wage for Illinois. It is near impossible to live on their living allowance without government or family support. While participating, I applied and received Medicaid and food stamps, as is institutionally encouraged for members. No matter where they work, AmeriCorps members can expect to make just above the federal poverty line, while doing full time anti-poverty work.
Members like myself often justified these conditions by holding out for our debt forgiveness. Over 70 percent of AmeriCorps members who participated in a 2021 AmeriCorps study said that they were motivated to become a member by the program’s education award. Upon completion of the service term, members can either opt to “cash out” $1,800 or receive the $6,495 Segal Education Award to apply to previous federal student loans or future educational endeavors. However, different from a traditional scholarship, that award is viewed as taxable income, often bumping service members into a higher income bracket. Unsure of Biden’s plans for student loan cancellation, I immediately applied my award to my existing loans in 2021 during the federal forbearance.
When Biden announced his student debt forgiveness plan in August, he noted that borrowers could request a refund for any payments made since March 2020. Had I paid off my loans out of pocket during the pandemic, I could request that money back from my student loan servicer. Instead, with the Segal Education Award, I’m caught in limbo between different federal agencies. Neither my loan servicer nor AmeriCorps would tell me definitively whether I’d see the money again.
I’m not mourning my time spent in AmeriCorps because of my (currently) missing $6,000. Instead, I’m frustrated that the federal government is bleeding money into a program to help underserved communities, instead of simply sending the funds directly to those communities. Rather than offering what working people need, we continue to bolster volunteerism to soothe our souls, while pandemic and unemployment benefits have long expired.
Fans of means testing or making students “earn” their debt forgiveness often laud the AmeriCorps program. Leading up to Biden’s final decision, the discourse around civil service made its rounds again with calls for national service. Alongside those bemoaning falling military recruitment numbers, pundits look at our failing infrastructure and worker shortages and, perhaps understandably, think we should do something about it. I agree. However, Americans aren’t interested. In 2022, before Biden’s student loan forgiveness announcement, only 34 percent of young people supported a proposal to require an 18-month National Service program.
In response to the pandemic, many countries saw the impact on youth employment and took action, in part to “[re]build trust of young people in governments and public institutions.” All EU countries committed to “ensuring that all young people under the age of 30 receive a good quality offer of employment, continued education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education.”
Instead of trying to innovate or mandate community service, what if we created an improved pathway to public union jobs? Despite being paid by the federal government, AmeriCorps service members are not legally employees. Under current National Labor Relation Board standards, members cannot unionize or bargain, they also find themselves in precarious labor conditions regarding the right to unemployment compensation and Occupational Safety and Health Administration protection. As it stands, there are already more than 1 million unfilled permanent positions in the public sector, including essential workers such as teachers, public health workers and garbage collectors.
Piecemeal programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which forgives educational debts after 10 years of work, are rife with failure and carve-outs. Prior to the recent PSLF waiver, only 2 percent of borrowers were approved for forgiveness. Moreover, while those working at 501(c)(3)s such as National Right to Work Foundation are eligible for PSLF, employees who work for unions are not.
On the 2020 campaign trail, Biden proposed the creation of a 100,000-person Public Health Jobs Corps to address the pandemic and invest in public health. The result? A plan to instead support less than 5,000 AmeriCorps positions over the next five years in the field.
Similarly, Biden proposed $10 billion to bring back the Civilian Climate Corps—a plan that galvanized young voters. But after months of shuffling, what became the Inflation Reduction Act didn’t include it. Senator Bernie Sanders tried to resurrect it through an amendment, but Democrats united in opposition.
The AmeriCorps program cannot address our failing infrastructure and job needs. Instead, it often serves as a study abroad experience in “doing good.” Sacrificing a year of your life to do service work to help “lift people out of poverty” while working at the poverty line can breed a patronizing savior complex that rarely helps communities, leading to labor abuses from above and burnout from below. Until the material conditions of service work change, they will continue to serve as a meritocracy for graduate school applicants and future McKinsey consultants, bloating the ranks of the elite while taking away resources for long-haul public workers.
A system where working-class students have to make difficult decisions to work off their student debt allows them to be held hostage by the economy, creating an unequal labor market. I’d love to live in a world where all graduates, regardless of their background, can take jobs as teachers, sanitation workers, social workers and health care workers. In fact, we need that world. A federal public jobs guarantee with a living wage and benefits is a good place to start. At the time, AmeriCorps was a fine option for me. But I want a great option for everybody.