Economy & Budget

Trump budget ends US national service tradition


The massive federal budget proposed this week by President Trump would strikingly phase out our nation’s nearly century-old practice of funding national service programs, a bipartisan tradition that spanned congressional majorities and presidents of both parties. 

According to early reports, the president would save $1.7 trillion from mandatory spending by shaving or reforming various entitlement programs. The cuts are historic and much-needed.

If adopted, this budget would move the nation towards solvency, spending only those dollars we have. But the White House’s laudable goal of reducing government waste has seemingly blinded it to the reality that not all tax dollars spent are dollars wasted.

For the last 80 years, every successive president, no matter their party, has increased our nation’s investment in national service. Instead, this budget would move us towards eliminating it altogether. Included among the many programs and agencies slated to lose funding is the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps.

On the surface, the CNCS caricature fits the profile of the budget’s other targets for elimination. Why should the government, in the words of Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, ask a coal miner in West Virginia to pay for some lazy millennials to sing “Kumbaya” in the forest for a year?

They plainly shouldn’t, and that’s not what national service is. In funding CNCS, which marries tax dollars with private investment to advance the work of nonprofit, community and faith-based groups like Catholic Charities USA, Teach for America, and Habitat for Humanity, our government isn’t asking coal miners to finance singalongs but instead to care for our veterans, fix our schools and infrastructure, and aid communities struck by natural disaster.

All told, national service programs total just $1.03 billion. CNCS’s budget accounts for only one-third of one single percent of the federal budget.

That’s $1.03 billion that we could invest in the care of our veterans and their families, in chronically-failing schools, and economic upliftment of our nation’s inner cities and rural communities. And, according to a study by Columbia University economists, every dollar spent on national service generates a return of four for society. Said another way: that’s billions and billions lost in higher wages, better schools, and stronger communities.

Presidential budgets are as equal parts grandstanding political demonstrations and sincere policy positions. Policy overlaid with politics. This budget was intended to make clear the days of profligate Washington spending are over. Good.

But to strip funding for national service is to do a disservice to American patriotism, the tax payer, those who serve, and those served.

National service is just that: service to the nation. The young people who invest their time and talents are drawn to AmeriCorps and its partners by the same thread that tugs so many into the military: their desire to give of themselves to their country.

National service is an investment. And investments, by nature, are often hazy propositions, but we already know that national service programs reap huge returns — not only for those serving, but for those served, like children in struggling schools, those impacted by natural disasters, and our veterans.

These programs do the hard, often thankless work of making America great. If anyone should understand that, it should be the president.  

Eric Tanenblatt, a former chief of staff to Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue and senior advisor to U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, served as vice chairman and member of the Board of Directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service under two presidents.

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

Tags Budget Corporation for National and Community Service Donald Trump Public policy United States federal budget

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