WASHINGTON -- In July 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama promised that public service would be "a central cause" of his presidency. The pledge excited thousands of his young, inspired supporters who were eager to follow their passions and make a difference.
On April 21, 2009, President Obama moved forward on this cause, signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act into law. Passed with strong bipartisan support, the legislation put AmeriCorps, the federal program that provides service opportunities at the local, state and national level, on a path of expansion from 75,000 annual positions to 250,000 by 2017.
But four years later, there is funding for only 82,500 AmeriCorps spots, meaning the program will fall far short of its goal of reaching 170,000 members in fiscal year 2013. It's not because of a lack of a desire to serve: In the last two years, around 1 million AmeriCorps applications were denied.
And if Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget blueprint ever becomes a reality, AmeriCorps and other service programs would lose all their federal funding.
Most politicians insist that creating jobs is a top priority. Yet the issue of national service -- essentially jobs, primarily for young people, with local and national nonprofit groups -- hasn't received a day in the news cycle, pushed out by Bain Capital, contraception and stay-at-home moms. At the same time, nearly 1 in 5 young Americans is unemployed, the highest level since World War II.
National service jobs won't make people rich -- the AmeriCorps stipend, for example, is $18,500, a modest amount that provides a living allowance and covers other basic expenses during a term of service. That amount includes a $5,550 scholarship that participants receive if that complete their term, which can be used for future schooling or to pay off loans. But the paid positions enable young people to engaged themselves with their communities and provide them with valuable work experience and connections, all of which may help them jumpstart their careers.
National service advocates would like to see Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, both of whom have strongly supported service programs in the past, start bringing up the issue on the campaign trail, arguing that it's a straightforward and cost-effective way to provide jobs.
"Our generation wants to push and dream for something big, and few policies make more sense than allowing idealistic young Americans to serve their country via nursing, teaching, disaster relief, park restoration, and infrastructure repair," said Matthew Segal, co-founder and president of Our Time, a national advocacy group for young people. (Our Time has a content partnership with The Huffington Post.)
Our Time has launched a campaign at OneMillionNewJobs.org calling on the presidential candidates to support a measure creating 1 million service positions in areas of national need, such as poverty relief, the environment and technology. The group is hoping to get 1 million signatures in support of the effort.
Of course, 1 million new service jobs won't come cheap. Zach Maurin of ServeNext, a grassroots group that advocates for service opportunities and is partnering with Our Time, estimates that the government would have to spend $18.5 billion to fund the jobs. If it is done as a partnership of private- and public-sector funds -- as is the current model with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which administers programs like AmeriCorps -- it would cost about $8 billion in taxpayer dollars.
Yet the cost of creating these jobs seems like a bargain when compared to the payroll tax cut Congress recently passed. It was estimated that the $143 billion measure would save about 400,000 jobs. In other words, it cost $357,500 per job, per year, far more than the $18,500 cost of each job provided by AmeriCorps.
Eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service. Programs administered out of this agency -- which created the oxymoron 'paid volunteer' -- provide funding to students and others who work in certain areas of public service. Participation in these programs is not based on need. The Federal Government already has aid programs focused on low-income students, and paying volunteers is not a core Federal responsibility, especially in times of high deficits and debt. Further, it is much more efficient to have such efforts operate at the State and local level by the community that receives the benefit of the service.
Service advocates take issue with the characterization of their work as paid volunteerism. Alan Khazei is co-founder of the AmeriCorps program City Year. He pointed out that serving in elected office and joining the military are also volunteer public service positions that are compensated.
"If they didn't get some kind of living stipend, something to be able to buy their food, pay their rent, take the subway, they couldn't do it," he said. "We don't want to have a national service program that's limited to the wealthiest people in our society so their parents can support them for a year."
Khazei also disagreed with the Ryan plan's suggestion that state and local governments should pick up the tab.
"To say that we're going to pass this off to states and localities is not facing the reality of where states and localities are," he said. "They're facing hard decisions every single day. Historically, there has been a federal role in national service in our country. You can go back to FDR in the Depression, who created the Civilian Conservation Corps. It put 250,000 people to work in six months."
Ryan's office did not return a request for comment.
Romney has praised Ryan's budget plan, but he has not specifically addressed the service cuts it calls for.
There's strong indication, however, that Romney may disagree with the provision to defund CNCS.
In 1995, he joined President Bill Clinton in condemning Republican proposals to abolish federal aid to AmeriCorps. At the time, Romney served on the board of the Boston-based City Year and, through Bain Capital, provided private funds for the program.
"It shouldn't be killed," Romney said of AmeriCorps. "It should be grown and improved."
The Boston Globe reported on Sept. 13, 1995 that Romney had met with Senate Republicans and, as a compromise, recommended that "the private sector underwrite an increasing share of national service programs as they mature." He said federal aid should be scaled back from 85 percent to 50 percent after five years.
"That would enrich the program, save the taxpayers money and allow the precious tax dollars to create new programs and allow it to expand into new cities," he said.
In 2003, Romney, by then the governor of Massachusetts, spearheaded an effort with then-Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (D) to get 41 governors to sign a letter seeking up to $200 million in federal funding for AmeriCorps.
In 2007, Time asked all the presidential candidates to lay out their plans for national service. Romney, however, did not provide anything: "The former Massachusetts Governor had no comment on national service, saying he will discuss his views on the issue at a later time."
When reached for comment for this article, Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul declined to comment on what Romney's plan for national service would be or whether he agreed with the provision defunding service programs in the Ryan budget. She did, however, point to his past expressions of support for national service, including a comment he made on PBS's "Charlie Rose Show" in 2011, when he called it "marvelous."
"Whether that's by serving in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps or whether in the military," he said. "Nothing compares to the military from that standpoint. ... And there are a number of ways people can serve. They can serve voluntarily in their communities. Some offer experiences unlike anything else."
The importance of national service is, perhaps, one of the few areas where Obama and Romney agree. But the president's lofty ambitions have hit the reality of a Congress focused on steep budget cuts to domestic programs. As the deficit has continued to grow, funding for national service programs has not been on the top of the federal agenda.
In February, Obama proposed increasing next year's budget for the CNCS by 1.3 percent, to almost $1.1 billion. That would be enough money to keep AmeriCorps at the current level of 82,500 members. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted, his FY13 budget also proposed a small increase in funding to the Social Innovation Fund, a grants program the Obama administration created to expand effective nonprofit social projects. But it also eliminated two programs that CNCS administers, the Volunteer Generation Fund and the Nonprofit Capacity Building Program.
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, defended the president's record.
"The Administration has also made substantial new investments in national service," he said. "Since 2009, CNCS has experienced a $159 million, or 18 percent, increase in funding. Even in a challenging financial environment, the record levels of funding has been maintained. We now have more than 82,000 Americans serving in AmeriCorps, an increase of nearly 10 percent since the beginning of the Administration."
He acknowledged the elimination of the two CNCS programs, saying they were cut in the budget plan in order to spare more effective programs from facing greater reductions.
"The President’s FY 2013 budget request reflects careful deliberations that resulted in targeted spending cuts, rather than across-the-board reductions," he said. "We are not able to fund every important program. As such, the FY 2013 budget request does not include funding for the Volunteer Generation Fund and the Nonprofit Capacity Building Program."
ServeNext's Maurin expressed disappointment with the president's failure to create as many service opportunities as he promised to, but he expressed hope that if enough people get behind the Our Time campaign, it could build the political will for him to take up the issue again.
"He and the administration are in a situation where they have a lot of competing priorities, and they haven't quite seen this as something as powerful as it could be, and that's, quite frankly, frustrating," he said. "We know that he and the First Lady, and a lot of leaders in the White House -- they're all believers in this. … We think if the American public, and especially young people who are unemployed, speak up about this, they will do more."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a vocal supporter of national service programs, said that if the Our Time campaign gains enough momentum, the issue of national service could get the attention of lawmakers in Washington -- and even, perhaps, make its way into the Democratic platform.
"When you have tough budget times, then a lot of these efforts get squeezed," he said. "One way to change that political calculus is to mobilize young people in support of the effort. ... I think that if anyone can do it, it's a group of very dedicated, committed, young people who want to serve the country."