Economy & Budget

Why AmeriCorps is a program conservatives should love

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AmeriCorps is the conservative program that conservatives love to hate.

AmeriCorps, a domestic Peace Corps, is a federally funded program that provides modest living allowances and college aid to Americans who perform significant amounts of structured community service by responding to natural disasters, boosting education, bolstering public safety, fighting poverty, improving health, helping the environment and protecting homeland security.

AmeriCorps benefits go only those who work hard. Grants are awarded mostly by states. The vast majority of its participants work in nonprofit groups (not government agencies). And the program generates hundreds of millions of private-sector matching funds.

In theory, conservatives should embrace AmeriCorps as a model of how to boost self-reliance and empower communities.

In 1990, arch-conservative William F. Buckley wrote an entire book (“Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country”) promoting a government-funded system of national service, in which most of the money would be controlled by the states and participants would be provided a small living allowance.

That’s exactly how AmeriCorps works today.

{mosads}It is no wonder, then, that key Republicans — including both President Bushes, former Republican National Committee Chair and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) — have embraced AmeriCorps.


So why do many leading conservative ideologues of today hate it, why do House Republicans keeping trying to de-fund it and why is President Trump considering eliminating it?

Professed ideological objections simply don’t hold up. Some say it’s simply wrong to pay volunteers. But Republican members of the House who object to paying AmeriCorps Members an average of $15,000 annually for full-time public service pay themselves $174,000 each year for their own public service.

Given that Republicans keep saying that all social programs should require work, it makes no sense for them to claim to support Pell grants (which have no work requirement) but oppose AmeriCorps, which is entirely work-based.

About two-thirds of federal AmeriCorps funding is allocated by state commissions appointed by governors, exemplifying exactly the kind of state control that Republicans profess to love.

Others complain about the supposed high cost of AmeriCorps, but its total annual federal budget, about $750 million, isn’t much more than taxpayers spend supporting military music bands.

In exchange for that, taxpayers help 75,000 Americans per year (most of whom are from middle-class and low-income families) pay their own way through college or graduate school. This increased educational attainment boosts the overall American economy.

Not only that, but AmeriCorps members are placed with tens of thousands of grassroots nonprofit groups, many of which are faith-based, and provide vital services to millions of Americans.

While some conservatives claim that AmeriCorps somehow competes with the charitable sector, the reverse is true. Leading national nonprofit groups — such Teach for America, the American Red Cross, City Year, and Boys and Girls Clubs — have relied heavily on AmeriCorps to get the job done.

The nonprofit group I lead, Hunger Free America, utilizes AmeriCorps members from coast to coast to build the capacities of food banks and other anti-hunger organizations to increase food availability, and boosts participation of hungry kids in government summer meals programs.

Because AmeriCorps members often recruit, train and manage non-compensated volunteers, they dramatically increase volunteer aid to charities.

So why do many conservatives hate a program so in line with key conservative precepts?

I can only conclude that, for some, their top objection is crassly political: because AmeriCorps was started by President Clinton, and the law to authorize its potential expansion was signed by President Obama (albeit with strong GOP support in the Senate).

But if we want to stop living in a country that exists in a state of perpetual political warfare — in which we automatically denounce anything supported by our political opponents, no matter how laudible — then we should unite over commonsense programs like AmeriCorps.

Joel Berg is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and CEO of Hunger Free America, a nationwide advocacy and direct service organization.​

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags AmeriCorps John McCain Orrin Hatch

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