NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

National (dis)service: Symbolic budget cuts with real consequences

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

[1] AmeriCorps: Changing Lives, Changing America – A Report on AmeriCorps’ Impact on Members and Nonprofit Organizations,” Corporation for National and Community Service, 2007.
[2] Matt Kramer (president of Teach for America), Congressional Testimony, March 8, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Larry, I agree with you in principle that national service programs are important to us as a nation, and should be encouraged as much as possible. However, I take issue with some of your statistical data and the evidence you provided to support your case.

    Firstly, you write that “most AmeriCorps members serve for an annual stipend of just $12,000.” Admittedly that is a very low stipend, and AmeriCorps volunteers are saintly for being willing to offer themselves for such little means. However, have you considered the aggregate costs? Employing 75,000 people for $12,000/year is $900 million, plus administrative costs and costs of food stamps (sorry, SNAP), that AmeriCorps volunteers rightly have access to. When you add up the numbers, this is not a cheap program.

    Secondly, you show that “66% of AmeriCorps alums go on to work in public service, and are more likely than their peers to volunteer later in life.” I think you’re suffering from selection bias. Don’t you think it’s likely that people who are prone to joining AmeriCorps are already more disposed to public service and volunteerism? Do you really think that had there not been AmeriCorps those people would not be involved in public service? Of course, it’s always hard to prove the counter-factual, but there is a rational basis for my assertion.

    Finally, you claim that “federal dollars incubate innovation” and cite Teach for America as an example. But what evidence do you have to show that it was due to federal spending that the program was to succeed? Where is the proof that without federal dollars the “private, state, and local” funding streams would not have been forthcoming? Surely many NGOs thrive without federal funding? I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just asking for better evidence.

    In the end, I agree that national service is too important a program to be used as a budgetary political football in Congress. But that is not to say that we shouldn’t consider scaling back or cutting the program entirely, if it is in the context of *real* *across-the-board* deficit and budget reductions (granted, not a likely prospect for Congress). We have to acknowledge that if we’re serious about budget cutbacks, then programs we like will have to be cut. And national service, like any program (discretionary and even non-discretionary) should be legitimate fodder for the chopping block if necessary. To quote our president, “it’s now time to come together and make the painful choices we need to eliminate those deficits.” And if national service is of those many painful choices, so be it.