No Greatness in Trump’s Call to Kill AmeriCorps

(AP/Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald)

Kathleen Elias and Eleni Kalamaris, both with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, cut and treat tree saplings at part of a prairie restoration at Mount St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa.

As Americans celebrate the ideals of democratic participation and service this Fourth of July, it is an apt moment to decry the betrayal of those values in President Trump’s proposed elimination of all funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service. The independent federal agency, which oversees AmeriCorps and other public service programs, would only receive the money needed to shut down operations.

A bit of background is in order. The 1994 launch of AmeriCorps—the nation’s premier public service program, a sort of domestic Peace Corps—was one of former President Bill Clinton’s signature achievements. The program aimed to harness the idealism and spirit of service of thousands of Americans eager to contribute time and energy to addressing pressing national and community problems in a hands-on fashion.

That basic vision continues today in the efforts of some 80,000 mostly young AmeriCorps members, who receive minimal living expenses and a modest education stipend (currently $5,815) in exchange for an intense year of work. They perform tasks like tutoring struggling schoolchildren and helping out with after-school activities at under-performing schools; cleaning up parks and other public lands; providing help to veterans and their families; and responding to hurricanes, floods, tornados, and other emergencies. No program, especially one so large and challenging, is perfect. But for most participants, it’s a life-changing experience, one that can help open doors to post-AmeriCorps jobs and careers. The current funding level is $386 million, the same as for fiscal 2016. The agency’s overall allocation is a little more than $1 billion.

Nonprofit organizations doing important work, like Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, and Teach for America, rely heavily on AmeriCorps members. Studies, news reports, and the testimonials of knowledgeable officials, experts, and affected individuals and communities attest to the program’s value.  

During the presidential campaign, Trump said there was “something beautiful” about national service, albeit without matching Hillary Clinton’s detailed plan to significantly expand the number of AmeriCorps members, lengthen the period of service, and increase the educational stipend to help defray college costs. Now ensconced in the White House, the tweeting, narcissistic candidate turned tweeting, narcissistic president has lost sight of the program’s utility, an unwelcome evolution that his potentially mortal budget cuts underline.

So how does Team Trump justify trying to end an affordable, popular, and valuable public service program? It’s largely a matter of hard-right ideology and political pressure beating out key facts and the public good—a dominant Trump World theme.

Discussing the agency’s elimination, the Trump budget document asserts that funding its work “is outside the role of the Federal Government,” and should be left to “the nonprofit and private sectors.” That’s a lame excuse for crushing a civic endeavor that regularly dispatches its dedicated, and lowly compensated participants to help improve student performance in short-handed schools, and bolsters the missions of thousands of nonprofit and community organizations.

Trump’s defunding call reflects a very narrow view of government and public service. It both undervalues the social and economic benefits of AmeriCorps and overlooks the crucial backing that the program receives from foundations, companies, and local governments that match federal government dollars. 

Haley Barbour, a former Republican Party chairman who was the governor of Mississippi when Hurricana Katrina struck, debunked the notion that AmeriCorps is merely an easily dispensable “outgrowth of big government,” as he put it, in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Barbour detailed the “outsized and critical role” of AmeriCorps volunteers in his state’s “immediate and long-term recovery” from the epic storm, calling them “the glue that bound together our entire volunteer operation.” He urged congressional appropriators to resist dismantling the program.

Trump’s budget will not be the final word, although he will have a say in any budget deal that finally emerges. Fortunately, there is ample public support for AmeriCorps and among state and local political and community leaders who have communicated their support to Capital Hill lawmakers. The ranking Republican Appropriations Commmittee chairmen and ranking Democratic members in both congressional chambers—Representatives Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, and Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, and Senators Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, and Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat—are vocal supporters of AmeriCorps. They can make a valuable contribution by showing spine and leading their colleagues to resist any cuts to AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other threatened agency initiatives.

Last week’s unanimous rejections by two relevant appropriations subcommittees of Trump proposals to cut overseas water projects and food aid was an encouraging sign, showing, as the Associated Press reported, “the depth of opposition to Trump’s budget plan to make widespread cuts in most domestic agencies.”

Like the health-care battle, the current round of budget theater has multiple complexities and variables and no one can know with any certainty how all the churning and machinations in the Republican-led House and Senate will turn out. That there are so many objectionable facets to the federal budget state-of-play only adds to the uncertainty.

But the idea that this country cannot afford to continue funding AmeriCorps is laughable. Even at current funding levels, the program is some 170,000 members shy of the 250,000 target for 2017 that Congress set in the bipartisan AmeriCorps expansion enacted early in President Obama’s tenure. Losing the program or shrinking it in some benighted compromise with the White House is unacceptable: It is the opposite of what building a better, stronger America really means.

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