News and analysis
September 12, 2014

AmeriCorps Turns 20 Amid Stymied Growth

Courtesy of Minnesota Reading Corps

Twenty years ago this week, Laura Sullivan Ethridge found herself crowded into a White House lobby chatting with Timberland president Jeff Swartz and football-great-turned-community-service-advocate Rosey Grier.

It was already a day to remember, and President Bill Clinton hadn’t even appeared yet to sign the law that would create AmeriCorps. The meticulously rehearsed event was to feature the swearing-in of hundreds of inaugural volunteers, including Ms. Ethridge, on the south lawn.

Several hours earlier, a man crashed an airplane on White House grounds, forcing organizers to relocate the ceremony to the north steps. Still, the distraction did nothing to diminish Ms. Ethridge’s enthusiasm for the adventure ahead.

"There was a genuine and passionate excitement that this AmeriCorps program could be another way to serve your country beyond the military," says Ms. Ethridge, who was 25 at the time. "It was a powerful experience because you were larger than just yourself."

On Friday, she returns to the White House where she and other national-service advocates will join President Obama and President Clinton in marking the 20th anniversary of the National and Community Service Trust Act, which pays AmeriCorps volunteers a stipend to spend up to a year working at nonprofit organizations. The event, which will be streamed live online, will include a pledge ceremony for several hundred AmeriCorps members on the south lawn, just as it was planned two decades ago.

More than 80 pledge ceremonies will take place in all 50 states, with Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and several governors participating.

The legacy of AmeriCorps can been seen in 1.2 billion service hours and $2.7-billion in education awards logged by the program’s members, says Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps.

"We certainly created a movement for good with 900,000 Americans who have served in AmeriCorps," Ms. Spencer says. "A lot of benefits come from that, both for the individuals who served but also for the organizations who were able to drive their missions."

Years of Struggle

But the celebration will be tinged with undertones of unfulfilled promises.

Five years ago, a newly elected President Obama had campaigned hard on expanding AmeriCorps and other national-service programs. Michelle Obama once directed an AmeriCorps program in Chicago. And the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act—which dictated that the number of AmeriCorps volunteers be increased to 250,000 by 2017—was ushered through Congress with bipartisan support and signed into law.

But a one-two punch of partisan politics and federal budget shortfalls stymied growth. After Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 2010, some conservatives took aim at AmeriCorps, criticizing it for subsidizing what they argued should be pro bono work and then voting unsuccessfully to defund it. In recent budget proposals, President Obama failed to request appropriations that would allow the program to hit growth benchmarks.

Fewer than 80,000 AmeriCorps positions were funded by the government in the 2014 fiscal year, far short of the 200,000 called for under the Serve America Act. The current allocation for AmeriCorps, including its National Civilian Community Corps and Vista branches, was $458.1-million, a figure that has remained largely flat since 2011.

"We have certainly been victim, like every federal agency, of the budget and the constraints right now in the economy," Ms. Spencer says.

Since she was confirmed by the Senate in April 2012, Ms. Spencer has been working to get AmeriCorps back on track. New performance measures have been introduced to help AmeriCorps track its impact in communities, she says. An Office of Accountability and Oversight was established two years ago to improve, among other things, the corporation’s risk-management practices.

Ms. Spencer has met with more than 100 members of Congress, she says, and points to a good working relationship with Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers, chairman of the House appropriations committee.

But in some ways, her strategy involves sidestepping Congress altogether. Ms. Spencer and her colleagues have crisscrossed the United States drumming up support among mayors. In May, 1,760 mayors participated in the second annual Mayors Day of Recognition for National Service, more than double the previous year.

"We know members of Congress listen to mayors because mayors represent their constituents, and mayors are working very closely with us on the ground," Ms. Spencer says. "They see the Senior Corps members and the AmeriCorps members serving. We knew that if they could help us tell that story, that it would make an impact."

Ms. Spencer is also pursuing private-sector money. In March, the Corporation for National and Community Service said that the Citi Foundation would spend $10-million to underwrite 225 AmeriCorps volunteer positions in 10 cities over three years. There are also examples of corporations donating services, like Southwest Airlines transporting AmeriCorps members into areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

"That is the kind of growth strategy I think is important," Ms. Spencer says. "We can’t sit back and say, ‘We just don’t have enough money.’ We’ve got to get out of that and be more creative."

Leadership Positions

AnnMaura Connolly, president of Voices for National Service, a membership advocacy organization that earlier this year gave Washington a failing grade for its performance implementing the Serve America Act, says that members of Congress need to "put their money where their promise is."

Ms. Spencer’s leadership is starting to yield results, she says, and national service is still something that both Democratic and Republican leaders can support.

"I’m very optimistic about the future," Ms. Connolly says. "If folks in the White House and folks in Congress can lean into this, I think it is going to pay dividends for the country in a lot of different ways."

Members of the early AmeriCorps classes are starting to assume top leadership positions in education and public service, Ms. Connolly and others point out, noting people like New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich and Flint, Mich., Mayor Dayne Walling. That only bodes well for the program, they argue.

William Consuegra, an AmeriCorps member from 1994 to 1995, says that many of the 40 volunteers he served with in South Texas have gone on to be lawyers, doctors, and educators. He has volunteered extensively with the United Way and other groups in various capacities throughout his adult life.

"I feel that I’ve very much been impacted by my services," says Mr. Consuegra, 38, currently an economic-development representative in the New Mexico State Lands Office. "It really has shaped how I angle my life both professionally and personally."

Ms. Ethridge, now with Wells Fargo in San Francisco, says that her AmeriCorps year had "hands down the most profound impact" on her career. When she returns to the White House on Friday, she hopes that the 20th-anniversary celebration serves as a validation of the power of service, while affirming that it comes in all shapes and sizes.

"I think that commitment makes us richer citizens and more engaged in our country," she says.

Editor’s note: Reporter Megan O’Neil was an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2006-07 and received a federal education award.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.