Analysis: How Obama and Congress Failed AmeriCorps ... and America

White House

During his first presidential race, Barack Obama pledged to "expand and fund AmeriCorps from 75,000 slots today to 250,000" volunteers, putting service-minded millennials to work on the nation's toughest problems.

After just three months in office, he signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act authorizing the expansion of the Clinton-era program to the goal of 250,000. He had kept his promise, Obama boasted, and he declared 2009 the dawn of a "new era of service."

But the dawn never broke. Congress never funded the quarter-million hires, not even when Democrats controlled both chambers in 2009-10. AmeriCorps enrollment crept above the 80,000 mark in 2009 and limped along until this year, when the sequestration spending cuts cost the program at least 3,600 workers.

This broken promise must be a painful one for Obama, a former community organizer with a special affinity for AmeriCorps. It also reflects a familiar pattern of his presidency:

  • raise hopes for big change;
  • watch dogged rivals crush those hopes;
  • hear Democrats question White House strategy.

"Our country is a better and stronger force for good in the world because more and more we are a people that serve," Obama said while promoting the embattled program this month.

Founded in 1994 and operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps includes several service programs that pay volunteers stipends. Those programs include Teach for America, City Year and Vista. (Disclosure: My daughter was a City Year volunteer in Detroit.)

At a time of high unemployment and slow economic growth, non-profit organizations are having trouble meeting people's needs. A 2012 survey by the NonProfit Finance Fund showed that 85 percent of organizations serving the needy expect an increase in demand for their services. Yet only 40 percent can meet the needs, the survey showed, due to a lack of workers. For every federal dollar invested, national service members deliver as much as $3 of services.

By refusing to fund AmerCorps, Congress is missing a chance to engage Millennials who are volunteering in record numbers. AmeriCorps alone received more than 582,000 applications in 2011, a 62 percent increase over 2009. That means a half-million young Americans are being turned away.   

Despite the need and value, AmeriCorps has long been on the GOP hit list. While President George W. Bush supported the program, Republican lawmakers objected to any program so closely associated with President Clinton, and they balked at paying volunteers.

Former Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, once called AmeriCorps "a welfare program for aspiring yuppies." In 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann voted to defund AmeriCorps, despite the fact that her son, Harrison, had joined Teach for America in 2009.

Supporters of the public service program praise Obama for fending off the GOP, but argue that the White House has not made AmeriCorps expansion a priority in budget fights.

 "I wish I could remind them that they do have a veto pen and could use it," said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

A senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, Berg said the White House never fails to propose an adequate budget. "But what do they insist upon in conference? What do they accept? That is a different story."

The White House declined comment for this story. In private conversations with AmeriCorps boosters, White House officials maintain that, tactically, the best they can do is defend the program against GOP cuts. Demanding more money for AmeriCorps would raise the program's profile, make it a target and expose it to cuts.

Such is the toxic political situation in Washington.

The questions about AmeriCorps could apply more broadly, Berg said – to any of Obama's failures to impose his agenda on Congress. "How much is his fault? How much is the fault of the political structure? And how much is the fault of the GOP?"

This month, Obama honored former President George H.W. Bush for making service a national issue via his "Points of Light" program. In doing so, Obama also announced a government task force led by the Corporation for National Service to study how service programs could meet the needs of federal agencies. It was a toothless gesture.

"In times of tight budgets and some very tough problems," Obama said, "we know that the greatest resource we have is the limitless energy and ingenuity of our citizens." True enough, but Congress is squandering that resource and Obama seems powerless to help.

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