Saturday, February 26, 2011

AmeriCorps on the Chopping Block

AmeriCorps and its umbrella agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service, might soon be no more, and that would be a very sad way for the program to end. Now more than ever we need this sort of program. Americorps was originally VISTA--Volunteers in Service to America--a program first envisioned by JFK as a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Back in the early 90s I served as a VISTA volunteer for a year at a non-profit in my college town. We ran a mental health hotline and offered short-term walk-in counseling for mental health and drug and alcohol issues. Like most AmeriCorps projects, our clientele were among the neediest and most underserved in our community. In fact, the overarching mission of the VISTA program was to alleviate poverty. Today AmeriCorps volunteers serve in many capacities--helping to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina, serving in inner city schools, teaching English and literacy, working on infrastructure improvement projects, cleaning up streams, building low-cost housing, etc.

AmeriCorps is a brilliant program, especially in our current economy. It gives people jobs while costing very little. The pay might sound insulting--it's sub-minimum wage--but there are plenty of people who would jump at the chance to have some income rather than no income at all, and have a chance to do something truly useful, and gain real skills. In fact, there are always more applicants than there are spaces to fill. If anything, this sort of program needs to be expanded.

I'm convinced our economy is not going to recover--not in a time frame that's meaningful, anyway--and inevitably we all will have to adapt to fewer hours of work and less pay. AmeriCorps could be the poster child for this new reality. Earning $5.80 an hour is going to sound more and more appealing to people as time goes on. As I said, some income is better than none at all.

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