Larry Handerhan, MPA
When the House of Representatives passed $60 billion in fiscal year 2011 spending cuts last month, the programs on the chopping block ranged from the perfectly logical (repetitive fighter jet contracts) to the overtly political (Environmental Protection Agency). However, these efforts can not be taken as a serious deficit reduction strategy: by primarily targeting non-defense discretionary spending, which accounts for just 12% of the federal budget, it is clear that these cuts were more symbolic than substantive.
However, even in a climate where political symbolism is the cause du jour, it is alarming – and counter intuitive – that House Republicans would defund the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the agency that administers AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.
At a time where politicians and civic leaders champion public service, there must be some other option beyond joining the military. Volunteerism has never been more crucial: as cities and states cut services in response to budget shortfalls, volunteers are increasingly responsible for ensuring that the social safety net remains intact. And in addition to supporting its own volunteers, CNCS provides crucial capacity-building to some of the nation’s most well-respected and effective non-profits like City Year, Teach for America, and Habitat for Humanity.
If anything, fiscal conservatives should appreciate such a prudent program: most AmeriCorps members serve for an annual stipend of just $12,000.
Defunding CNCS is further perplexing because national service has not been – and should not become – a partisan issue. Bill Clinton launched AmeriCorps after successful pilot programs instigated by Republican predecessor George H. W. Bush. And George W. Bush increased the size of the program from 50,000 to 75,000 participants.
As any national service champion can attest, these symbolic cuts will have real consequences.
These consequences can be measured in fewer meals served, fewer students tutored, and fewer houses built. Unfortunately, the “softer” benefits of this work are equally as important but harder to quantify.
National service invests in communities, but also invests in the volunteer. This fosters positive externalities that extend far beyond time spent in a CNCS program and are not easily captured by traditional performance metrics.
66% of AmeriCorps alums go on to work in public service, and are more likely than their peers to volunteer later in life.
Volunteering has been shown to improve the mental and physical health of service-providers, particular older Americans.
And federal dollars incubate innovation. One salient example hits close to home: CNCS helped bring Teach for America to scale after it started as Wendy Kopp’s undergraduate thesis here at the Woodrow Wilson School. Due to the program’s success and popularity, it now attracts an additional $4 in private, state, and local funds for every federal dollar it receives.
That sounds like a pretty good return on investment to me.
Note: Larry Handerhan served as a Team Leader in AmeriCorps*NCCC in 2005-06, aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast.
 AmeriCorps: Changing Lives, Changing America – A Report on AmeriCorps’ Impact on Members and Nonprofit Organizations,” Corporation for National and Community Service, 2007.
 Matt Kramer (president of Teach for America), Congressional Testimony, March 8, 2010.