WASHINGTON — We are at a point where we will soon have vicious ideological debates over motherhood and apple pie.
Don’t laugh. If we can agree on anything across our philosophical divides, surely we can support efforts to promote voluntary service by our fellow citizens and to strengthen our nation’s extraordinary network of civic and religious charities.
This shared set of commitments led to one of the few bipartisan initiatives of President Obama’s time in office. On April 21, it will be five years since the president signed the Serve America Act, the final product of one of Congress’ most creative odd couples. Over and over, Republican senator Orrin Hatch and Democratic senator Edward Kennedy found ways to legislate together. The law aimed at authorizing 250,000 service slots by 2017 was the unlikely duo’s capstone project before Kennedy’s death.
At a very modest cost to government — those who serve essentially get living expenses and some scholarship assistance later — AmeriCorps gives mostly young Americans a chance to spend a year helping communities and those in need while also nurturing thousands of organizations across the country. Senior Corps provides Americans over 55 a chance to serve, too.
AmeriCorps sent out its first volunteers 20 years ago this fall. Since then, over 800,000 Americans have participated in the program. By giving life to this great venture in generosity, our government did something that taxpayers, regardless of party, can be proud of.
One politician who speaks often about the importance of civil society groups is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). Ryan rightly talks about the “vast middle ground between government and the individual,” and of empowering “community organizations to improve people’s lives.”
Yet Ryan’s new budget comes out against apple pie. It zeroes out AmeriCorps. Poof. Gone.
Rather than denouncing Ryan for this, I would urge him instead to take a second look on the basis of his own principles and realize the opportunity he has. The best move for someone who loves the activities of the nonprofits as much as Ryan says he does is to try to trump the president.
Obama’s budget proposes $1.05 billion to finance 114,000 AmeriCorps positions, a net increase of more than 30,000. It’s good that Obama and Senate Democrats have worked to keep the program funded in the face of House Republican resistance. But even the number Obama proposes amounts to just over half of the 200,000 spots for 2014 that Hatch and Kennedy envisioned in their original bill.
It’s not as if young people don’t want to serve. AmeriCorps had 580,000 applications for 80,000 openings; Teach for America, 55,000 applications for 6,000 slots. Alan Khazei, co-chair of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute that promotes national service, points to the 16 percent unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds. Service, he argues, is a gateway. It can lead to “employment opportunities and help young Americans develop important job skills for their future careers.”
If Ryan isn’t convinced yet, he should talk to Wendy Spencer, the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He’d have a lot in common politically with Spencer, a Republican. She worked in the private sector, for a local Chamber of Commerce and a United Way, and held positions in Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration in Florida. She headed the state’s Commission on Volunteerism for the last three Republican governors.
Spencer has been inventive at a time of tough budgets. At the end of March, she announced a partnership with Citi Foundation and the Points of Light Institute involving $10 million in private financing to engage 25,000 low-income young Americans to lead volunteer service projects even as they get mentoring and training from Citi employees.
Encouraged by Obama, federal agencies are using AmeriCorps volunteers in new ways. FEMA Corps, for example, can deploy 1,600 volunteers in disaster relief emergencies while the School Turnaround corps has used hundreds of volunteers in repairing troubled schools.
Spencer views the federal service programs as a “trifecta.” The organizations receiving AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members see their capacity enhanced as full-time volunteers leverage the work of thousands more. And, of course, the participants themselves benefit, as do the people they serve.
If you wish, Mr. Ryan, you can let the president get all the credit for saving this worthy endeavor and for fostering innovation. Or you can go him one better by expanding it. You could use AmeriCorps as a model for a practical, locally oriented, conservative approach to government. Because that’s exactly what it is.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.
Photo: St. Bernard Project via Flickr