Donald Trump has proposed cutting AmeriCorps, which would eliminate the job training program starting next year. But is AmeriCorps a successful experiment in idealism, or exploitation?
“Don’t do it.”
This was the advice a friend gave me when I told her I’d been offered a position with AmeriCorps. I admired this friend — her ideals, her activism, her career. She told me her experience — placed in a job that did not match the description for the position she’d interviewed for, working long hours, for a fraction of what a normal position would pay.
“It’s a way for the government to take idealistic reformers out of their community,” said another friend, who had also served with AmeriCorps.
The most positive review, from a third friend was, “It was the hardest year of my life, but I’m glad I did it.”
Hardly a siren song.
Each year, about 80,000 people “serve” in AmeriCorps — a network of national civilian service programs that many Americans have never heard of. AmeriCorps is not so much a monolithic career program as it is a series of grants, run by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) that funds a variety of programs. The bulk of these programs aim to “address critical community needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment.” In exchange for service, members receive a “modest” “living” stipend, and an education stipend upon the completion of their service term. AmeriCorps members — those who serve for a full year, without serving in the National Civilian Community Corps arm of the program — all make about $12,100 per year. Each member qualifies for the maximum amount of food stamps for a single person, which in most cases is around $200 per month. The party line is that AmeriCorps members serve those living in poverty and should make a similar amount as the people they serve.
My friend had accepted a position working in an office, where she thought she’d be connecting low-income clients with various social service programs. My position would consist of working on houses for low-income homeowners in New Orleans — I had never held a drill.
Aside from the obviously rewarding nature of the job, I wanted to test my mental and physical endurance, and emerge with the sort of butch memoir most of us tiny pansexuals with a penchant for writing can only dream of. I weighed the unknown against my friends’ warnings, against the allure of New Orleans, a place I imagined as a cluster of Victorian houses amidst live oak trees, swinging with Spanish moss and vampires.
I decided to go for it.
I moved to New Orleans, a cheap city by my (terribly inflated) Brooklynite standards, and found a place to live. The day I moved in, my roommates had fogged the house to kill the cockroaches before I arrived, but had forgotten to move the cans of poison, or clean up the giant iridescent brown exoskeletons. I swept them up. My room was an attic room, baking in the Louisiana summer sun, and the chitinous shells made a whispering sound as they collided in the dustpan. This is my life now, I thought.
There were other uninvited guests — mosquitoes, mice, and a young possum that would enter the kitchen through a hole in the wall to eat kibble from the dogs’ bowls. We named them Fred. Most worrisome, however were the rats — not just rats, but a species known as roof rats — this is what the exterminator informed me over the phone when I called him (against the advice of one of my roommates, who worried I would get the house condemned). The rats would crawl through the roof at night and cry, like an eerie chorus being forced to relive the events of November 8th, 2016.
My organization advocated for “safe and healthy housing for all”, but my house met almost none of those standards.
During my first few months in the job, I would bike home, climb the stairs to my room, and lay on my back on the floor, waiting for the strength to stand up and take a shower. My workdays were nine hours long, doing heavy labor almost every day, for about five dollars an hour. Oh, and we got health insurance.
The idea that AmeriCorps members should live in poverty, as the people they serve live in poverty, may not be totally without merit. But it is worth seriously asking whether it is morally acceptable to pay full-time workers five dollars an hour — lower than our dismal national minimum of $7.25. As many, many people have pointed out, the current guidelines for calculating the poverty line — which is under 25,000 for a family of four — are woefully out of date and inadequate. The stipend is not a living wage, and at times it feels like an insult.
AmeriCorps may be exploitative, may be taking advantage of the idealistic and jobless among us, but this is not mutually exclusive with the fact that CNCS does real, tangible good in the US. At a cost of less than four dollars per American taxpayer, it is estimated that for every dollar put into AmeriCorps funding, about four dollars in Gross Domestic Product is generated. AmeriCorps’ budget was 1.063 billion dollars last year, comprising only .03 percent of the federal budget. This funding supports AmeriCorps programs that maintain federal lands, assist people with their taxes, funds disaster relief, and works in public recreation.
This is not to say that all AmeriCorps positions are without controversy; of particular iffy-ness are programs such as City Year and Teach for America, where AmeriCorps members work in inner-city schools. Critics say that these and other teaching programs introduce teachers and tutors from outside of the community, who are likely to leave after their term, thus making them unable to build lasting relationships with their students. These programs also are said to weaken unions, especially as they often operate in charter schools. As a member, I helped to rebuild homes that had been damaged since Katrina. One homeowner had been living without electricity for over a decade; one couple was living in a converted garage next to the shell of their home — a home we were able to completely restore. This was the best part of the job, the visible impact the work had on people’s lives.
And yet, in my program, one woman had to drop out to take a job with better health insurance, others dropped out to make ends meet. And the term was easier, far easier, for those of us who had other income to fall back on — a partner with a better paying job, or a family that was willing and able to provide support in case of emergencies. There is not much data on the level of intergenerational wealth of those who serve, but the available data (the amount who serve who are first-generation college students) suggests a range of socioeconomic demographics for AmeriCorps members. AmeriCorps is also about 75 percent female, and disproportionately non-white, in relation to the rest of the country. Is there not something to be said for the fact that AmeriCorps is undervaluing those who would already make less money in the mainstream workforce?
If the budget for CNCS were doubled, CNCS would therefore comprise .06 percent of the federal budget, and members could make $24,000 a year — not riches, certainly, but enough to live. We could show Americans that wish to serve their country with non-military service, that we value their commitment and extremely hard work. We could entice people who need better money than five dollars an hour to build careers in public service.
Of course, in this political climate, this is unlikely to happen. After proposing to cut CNCS entirely from the budget in the last budget cycle (FY 2018), Trump has once again recommended cutting the program completely, with token funds to ensure a smooth closure. This would not only eliminate AmeriCorps, and funding to other community-based organizations, but would also put people who work as “AmeriCorps managers” — those who hire, supervise and support Americorps teams — out of work, and severely test non-profits who rely on AmeriCorps members to function. This proposal is still in play, as the budget for FY 2019 has not been passed.
For the most part, those of us who test our mettle with AmeriCorps have our stint, and we move on, with a few thousand dollars to pay off student debt, or attend school, and the proud mark of civilian service on our resumes. All the hazards that I endured at work — lead paint, falling hazards, joint pain, back pain, exposure to the severe summer heat — is nothing compared to those who do this job for years, often from a younger age. All the boredom of a Vista member (AmeriCorps members who do office work, capacity building for non-profits) is nothing compared to the boredom and danger faced by the people who make the clothes we wear, the sheets we sleep on, the computers that never leave our hands. It is far from apocalyptic for someone like me, who comes from abundant privilege, to labor like this for a while.
In the end, I knew what I signed up for. I knew that my paycheck would be scant, that it would not add up to an appreciable hourly wage, or leave me with any savings to speak of — I emerged, as many do, with less money than I started with.
Recently, a friend of mine from college visited town and as we yelled at each other to have a conversation over the club’s music, I asked her what she was doing for work in San Francisco.
“AmeriCorps!” she screamed back.
“How’s it going?”
She rolled her eyes.