Friday, AmeriCorps, the nation's domestic national service program, celebrates its 20th anniversary. At a White House ceremony, and events nationwide -- new recruits will raise their right hand and take the AmeriCorps pledge "to get things done for America."
After 20 years, much has gotten done for America.
More than 900,000 AmeriCorps members have given more than 1.2 billion hours of service. They have tutored and mentored students in high-poverty urban schools, preserved the nation's parks and public lands, provided job training and other vital services to returning veterans, and helped communities like Joplin, Missouri and New Orleans rebuild after devastating natural disasters. Harder to calculate, but no less real, is the enhanced sense of public purpose, patriotism and civic commitment felt by both those who have served, and those touched by that service.
Despite its many successes, after 20 years, AmeriCorps is fighting to grow, even to stay alive.
It's not a matter of lack of demand or popular support. Each year hundreds of thousands of young people who apply to serve are turned away for lack of available AmeriCorps positions. And polling has found that 75 percent of Americans believe that increased funding for national service would be worth the added investment.
AmeriCorps has enjoyed bi-partisan presidential support. President George H.W. Bush established the first White House office for national service. President Clinton launched AmeriCorps, and President George W. Bush expanded it. Five years ago, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which called for tripling AmeriCorps to a quarter million members by 2017. But the ramp up never happened and House budgets have attempted to zero out AmeriCorps, even as many Republican members of Congress praise the program.
Here's why it's time to get AmeriCorps growing again.
First, AmeriCorps gives government more bang for its buck. AmeriCorps funds are competitively won, require a private sector match and programs are held accountable to achieve results. In an era when every government dollar is under pressure, AmeriCorps is a "market maker" that attracts civic capital, both human and financial.
Young people are attracted to act on their idealism, patriotism and spirit of adventure, making a personal sacrifice to serve. Private philanthropy is attracted to the leverage of federal funds and the results-driven approach. While providing just 25 percent of City Year's budget, AmeriCorps has made it possible for our organization to expand to 25 cities and tackle the dropout crisis.
With increasing need and fewer dollars to go around, can the country afford to let hundreds of thousands of AmeriCorps applicants and millions of dollars in private philanthropy sit on the sidelines? FEMA has figured this out: the federal agency is now using AmeriCorps members to respond to disaster relief, and saving $60 million annually.
Second, AmeriCorps gives young adults that all-important first job. With youth unemployment at 14 percent, twice the overall rate, and an alarming 25 percent for African American youth, the "jobless recovery" hits young people especially hard. Too often young people are deprived of the lift off power of their first real job, and the skills, confidence, and social capital networks that come with it. AmeriCorps provides all of that, and more.
Once mobilized for service, young people often find that the road of opportunity rises to meet them. A report by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that unemployed individuals who volunteer are 27 percent more likely to find a job than those who don't -- and that number jumps to 50 percent if the volunteers are high school dropouts.
Third, AmeriCorps fuels social innovation and scales up what works. AmeriCorps members are being tapped by social entrepreneurs to tackle some of the most seemingly intractable public problems, and getting results. Citizen Schools is using AmeriCorps members to move the needle on middle school student achievement. Playworks has been proven to decrease bullying behavior. And City Year, which is participating in the nation's largest randomized control trial of secondary school turnaround models, is using evidence-based practices to keep students in school and on track to graduation. Local communities are looking to AmeriCorps to ramp up these and other promising programs.
Fourth, service unites us. At a time of profound national division - one need look no further than the recent events in Ferguson -- AmeriCorps is uniting young Americans across lines of race, class, religion, geography and political ideology. AmeriCorps members share a service experience that requires sacrifice, empathy and a deep commitment to the common good. Through expanded national service, Americans can unite in support of a value we all prize: love of country.
"National service," President Clinton observed when he signed the original AmeriCorps legislation, "is nothing less than that American way to change America." As AmeriCorps members take their pledge to serve, Congress and the President should pledge to grow AmeriCorps.