(Photo by Mitchell Leff, courtesy of the City of Philadelphia)
You can find this year’s 2,716 Philadelphia AmeriCorps members conducting service across the city — in schools, food pantries, adult GED programs, mental health nonprofits, even partnering with city departments to tackle environmental issues.
However, the entire AmeriCorps program is currently under threat, as the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) – the agency that oversees AmeriCorps – would be completely wiped out under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget.
CNCS supports over 80,000 AmeriCorps members nationwide each year, along with Senior Corps and the Social Innovation Fund. Its annual budget is $1.1 billion – which equates to approximately .03 percent of the federal budget. (By comparison, the U.S. Navy’s new aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, cost $13 billion.)
The AmeriCorps program engages young people for a year of intensive service. Participants often include recent college graduates, but those currently in college or in other educational programs take part as well. The service may be part-time or full-time and is compensated with a small stipend.
In Philadelphia, nonprofit leaders say the end of AmeriCorps would have multiple consequences: on their staffing, services, budgets, fundraising, outreach — and, of course, the AmeriCorps members themselves. According to Hillary Kane, director of Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND), the AmeriCorps program is an invaluable tool in Philadelphia communities.
YouthBuild Philadelphia's class of 2016 completed almost 63,000 service hours cumulatively.
“It’s sort of like a win-win: [There’s] the service that happens in the community during the person’s year of service, and then also it’s the investment in the member themselves,” she said. “These 75 college students [serving with PHENND] are not only serving their communities as a way to earn a little bit of money to stay in school, but then they’re also themselves low-income, first-gen students earning the AmeriCorps scholarship.”
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Under the proposed Trump budget, this support for low-income volunteers — such as those serving at alternative charter school YouthBuild Philadelphia — would be eliminated. At the school, young adults who dropped out of high school not only get the chance to complete their high school education, they also serve as part-time AmeriCorps members. The school’s class of 2016 students completed almost 63,000 service hours cumulatively, according to Executive Director Scott Emerick.
“They’re internalizing an ethic of service and developing a really deep personal commitment to service,” Emerick said. “That has a long-term impact both on their own lives and in the communities where they serve, where they learn, where they work, where they lead.”
The YouthBuild Philadelphia blog details stories of how service has changed the lives of students like Daniel, who graduated from the program in 2016. Before coming to YouthBuild Philadelphia, Daniel struggled with anxiety and stress, attending several alternative and online schools before finding his fit. But at Youth Build Philadelphia, he discovered a community — and a love of service.
“I never thought that in this city there were good things that you could do,” he said. With service, “I felt like I had a purpose.” Daniel continues his service post-graduation through internships at the local SPCA and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society. He is also enrolled in a pre-college program with the Community College of Philadelphia.
Also concerned about how the potential cuts to AmeriCorps could affect his programs is Charles Adams, executive director of Teach for America (TFA) Philadelphia.
The AmeriCorps education stipend can be a major source of support for TFA members, Adams said. With 20 percent of the 2016 Teach for America Philadelphia corps having received Pell Grants, the post-service Segal AmeriCorps Education Award can also be an important source of financial support for participating members — as well as a big help in recruiting candidates to take part in TFA.
Adams also pointed to TFA Philadelphia’s extensive reach into local communities as an indication of the impact of AmeriCorps on Philadelphia. One hundred and thirty Teach for America corps members serve in 50 Philadelphia schools. According to Adams, they’re providing a “suite of holistic supports” for under-resourced Philadelphia schools. In addition, TFA Philadelphia has a network of 1,500 alumni in Philadelphia, one-third of whom are still teaching.
"You can’t really replace AmeriCorps."
Darryl Bundrige, executive director of City Year, also indicated that a potential cut to AmeriCorps would dramatically influence his organization’s outreach into the community, saying that the decision on the AmeriCorps program would have a “ripple effect” on the school communities where City Year members work.
City Year places 18- to 25-year-old participants in disadvantaged schools, where they support teachers, build school community and morale, and model “near-peer” guidance, working on an individual basis with students. There are currently 205 City Year members in 14 Philadelphia schools.
In looking at a potential future without AmeriCorps, Kane said PHENND would look for other funding sources, “but you can’t really replace AmeriCorps.”
“Even if I could replace the administrative money for my programs, I can’t replace AmeriCorps itself,” she wrote in an email, including “the special exemptions that people get for doing a year of service (such as student loan deferment) or the cache of being in a national program … not to mention the cost of the AmeriCorps awards.”
Bundrige also named benefits to being part of a national program and said he foresees the potential end of AmeriCorps as cutting a pipeline into a major form of national service: Reflecting on the possibility, he said that he thought “a whole generation would miss the idea.”