National service is a bipartisan priority
Last week, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law. A little noticed but important provision in the law increases the national service budget by $1 billion, the first significant expansion of AmeriCorps since it was established in 1994. This step forward follows years of rising bipartisan recognition that AmeriCorps plays a vital role supporting community-based nonprofits across the nation.
Voluntary national service is a powerful way to help our country recover from the pandemic while also investing in our future. Realizing this, Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) recruited a bipartisan group of 16 co-sponsors (8 Republicans, 7 Democrats, and 1 Independent) in the summer of 2020 and introduced the CORPS Act. Their goal was to expand AmeriCorps from approximately 75,000 to 250,000 members over the next three years and increase the living stipend and educational benefit for those who serve so that a year of national service can be accessible to all Americans.
The vision of The CORPS Act enabled the first expansion of AmeriCorps last week. As more Americans step up to serve, it is important to continue this momentum and scale national service to the 250,000 goal in the CORPS Act in the 117th Congress.
These days it seems nearly impossible to find policy areas where Americans from both parties can agree. In the month leading up to the 2020 election, about eight-in-ten registered voters from both the Democratic and Republican parties thought their differences with the other political party were “about core American values.”
National service is the exception. Can you guess the party of the speakers behind these two quotes?
“National service represents the best of our nation’s can-do spirit and commitment to helping our neighbors in need. I first came to appreciate the tremendous good national service can provide fifteen years ago when [my state] was hit by [a hurricane]. In the weeks and months following that disaster, AmeriCorps members were there to lend a helping hand.
“Americans have a long history of responding to national calls to service in times of crisis. Today, AmeriCorps members are already hard at work in our communities supporting students as they learn remotely, helping patients make critical care decisions, and more. These programs can and should be expanded to meet the needs of this moment.”
The first is Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi. The second is Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. Despite their political differences, Coons and Wicker have found common ground on the value of AmeriCorps to our country.
The power of national service brought us together, too. One of us leads a coalition of national service organizations, Voices for National Service, and the other leads With Honor, a political organization that promotes principled veteran leadership across party lines in Congress. What our respective communities have in common is a deep commitment to service and a belief that working together in common purpose unites us as Americans.
The American public also agrees. A recent poll commissioned by our organizations found that 88 percent of Democratic and 78 percent of Republican voters — overwhelming majorities of both parties — support a transformational expansion of voluntary national service.
AmeriCorps has strong bipartisan support in part because national service is both cost-effective and good for the workforce. Every federal dollar invested in AmeriCorps is estimated to return over $17 to society, program members, and the government. National service also offers those who serve a chance to develop professional skills and networks and pathways to jobs.
Consider Chelsea Sanders, who taught a year of middle school in her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., as a City Year AmeriCorps member. Now she is teaching civics full time at the same school. Like Chelsea, the vast majority of Americans who step up to serve in AmeriCorps work in their hometowns.
National service is ultimately local service. It touches and improves every congressional district in the nation. In the short term, it is helping our country recover from a pandemic that has disproportionately battered lower income rural and urban communities.
If we seize this moment, the first expansion of AmeriCorps can put us on the path to when a year of service — whether military or civilian — is a common experience of all Americans, helping us heal our partisan divides and develop new generations of leaders for the common good.
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