There is a long history of presidential leadership of creating and expanding opportunities for Americans to serve. President George H. W. Bush created the first White House Office of National Service, launched the Commission for National and Community Service and established the Points of Light Foundation. President Bill Clinton founded the Corporation for National and Community Service and launched AmeriCorps. President George W. Bush grew AmeriCorps and created the U.S.A. Freedom Corps.
In his first 100 days in office, President Obama promised to build on the legacy of support for national service by signing into law the most sweeping expansion of national service in a generation, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The law was passed with widespread, bipartisan support from Congress, with 79 affirmative votes in the Senate.
In his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, the president missed an opportunity to engage the increasing numbers of Americans who are stepping forward to serve through programs like AmeriCorps, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions. Run by a federal agency called the Corporation for National and Community Service, these programs have been a quiet and effective force in communities large and small, urban and rural, across America. The roughly $1 billion invested in CNCS leverages more than $800 million in private and other funds to match the federal share.
It’s also a great bang for the buck. A recent Columbia University study confirmed that every dollar invested in national service generates returns to society of $3.95 in terms of higher earnings, increased output, and other community-wide benefits.
The president's budget recommends funding CNCS at $1.05 billion, essentially level-funding the agency at the FY14 level approved by Congress in January. While it does restore some of the damage caused by sequestration, the proposed budget misses an opportunity to seize the surging numbers of Americans who want to serve. If we were on track to meet the goals outlined in the Serve America Act, today there would be 200,000 Americans serving through AmeriCorps. Instead there are less than 80,000 AmeriCorps members down from a high of 89,631 in 2010.
The president's budget proposal is even worse for seniors. Through a combination of policy changes and funding cuts, the proposal would eliminate service opportunities for approximately 200,000 seniors—nearly two-thirds of those serving in RSVP today.
Created during the Nixon administration, RSVP is the largest of the three Senior Corps programs operating today. After decades of success engaging older Americans in service, RSVP—along with Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions—was incorporated into CNCS when the agency was created and AmeriCorps was launched by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Today, nearly 400,000 Americans of all ages are serving their communities through national service programs. The majority of these talented and dedicated citizens—approximately 315,000 —are aged 55 and older.
In Iowa, RSVP members serving in Boone and Greene Counties run a medical equipment loan closet and a food pantry for local residents. In Kansas, RSVP members operate an exercise program that minimizes the symptoms of osteoporosis in seniors, reducing the likelihood of fall-related injuries and associated Medicare costs. In Georgia, a team of Senior Corps members help to support the social and emotional development of young children whose families are stationed at Moody Air Force Base. These and thousands of other communities across American rely on the talent and wisdom of older Americans.
If adopted, the president’s budget could mean up to 82,590 students no longer receiving tutoring and mentoring services; up to 563,200 veterans going without critical supports that foster transition into civilian life; and up to 742,800 frail seniors and Americans with disabilities losing essential respite care and independent living assistance.
Even worse than the president’s budget is House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal which again calls for the elimination of Corporation for National and Community Service and all of its programs.
As we celebrate five years since the signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, our nation’s leaders should see the wisdom of making good on their commitment to unleash the energy and talents of hundreds of thousands of Americans who want to improve their nation and communities through service.
Connolly is president of Voices for National Service.