by Sean Scott
At a time when the country seems to be more divided politically than in recent memory, one would think we could at least agree on something as American as apple pie. The metaphorical apple pie of which I speak is community service and volunteerism. Volunteer community service has been one of the pillars of American values as observed and noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America as far back as 1835. Americans helping one another in need is a characteristic of American society that, historically speaking, most Americans and politicians have supported and nurtured. AmeriCorps, being the collective embodiment and institutionalization of this value, preserves it as a national program and allows people to volunteer and help one another at the community level on a full-time basis across the nation. With protracted economic uncertainty and the American middle class taking a constant battering, the AmeriCorps program should not be under threat of the austerity axe, but rather expanded to aid more struggling families while providing young people necessary work experience to obtain gainful employment.
AmeriCorps is a program under the umbrella of the Corporation for National and Community Service: a federal agency that annually engages more than five million individuals through several different divisions. For little taxpayer investment the U.S. Government is able to provide quality, dedicated individuals to nonprofits, and community- and faith-based organizations across the country working where the pavement meets the road to fight poverty and aid struggling Americans. These programs support projects in six priority areas: disaster services, economic opportunity, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures, and veterans and military families.
AmeriCorps VISTA in particular was designed specifically to fight poverty by providing support through these six areas. Volunteers gain much-needed work experience while nonprofits and civic organizations benefit from relatively low-cost labor at a time when austerity and budget cuts are threatening many essential community supports. The return on investment of making our young people more employable while supporting working families far exceeds the nominal amount of money it costs to employ these resources. These measurements don’t even take into account the unquantifiable benefits community service engenders in terms of social cohesion and community solidarity.
As Congress no longer has the political will to underwrite public works in times of crisis such as the WPA during the Great Depression, the general population must work with the scarce resources available to it. One of the most valuable of those resources is the AmeriCorps program. If our government is unwilling to help people during crises it must at least continue to facilitate its citizens helping themselves through mutual aid.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union”, as one of the foundations of our Constitution, enumerates Americans’ commitment to their communities, and each other, to ceaselessly improve our nation. As AmeriCorps members, we actively participate in forming a more perfect union every day we go to work. By supporting families in need and fighting poverty in our communities, AmeriCorps members struggle to hopefully one day ensure everyone has the opportunity to share a warm slice of that metaphorical American apple pie.