Make AmeriCorps Great Again

[UPDATED 3/16/17: President Trump has now proposed eliminating AmeriCorps.]

You can now group government programs into three categories: the ones that Trump hates (sanctuary cities, Obamacare), the ones that he loves (the military, border enforcement officers) – and then the other 99 percent: programs about which Trump has no opinion and/or knowledge. His default for the third group will be to defer to his cabinet and Republican leadership.

That would seem to mean death to AmeriCorps, the national service program that has given 1 million young Americans community service jobs through which they could earn college aid. The program, according to press accounts, has been targeted for elimination in early White House budget plans.

But the dirty little secret about AmeriCorps is that, although it was started by Bill Clinton, it has quietly become quite popular with Republicans around the country over the years. President George W. Bush enthusiastically backed the program. Other Republicans supporters include: Jeb Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Dan Coats, Rick Scott, General Stanley McChrystal, Colin Powell, and at least two former chairs of the Republican Party (Haley Barbour and Marc Racicot).

One reason: the program has a “Republican structure.” Two thirds of the program’s money goes through the states – and 70% of the governors are Republican. Then there’s the fact that the programs embed young people into 3,000 local charitable organizations, including local faves like Habitat for Humanity, Boys Clubs and the Red Cross. AmeriCorps members often end up recruiting, training and managing other volunteers. And it requires local programs to match the money from the feds.

Perhaps most important, the program is flexible enough to adapt to current needs and fashions. In the Clinton years, they placed a great emphasis on education. Under Bush, they boosted work with faith-based organizations. Under Obama, they increased the AmeriCorps work with veterans organizations and disaster relief (another reason local Republican officeholders like it).

And so AmeriCorps is actually perfectly situated to help Trump serve his voters on three issues in particular:

The Opioid Epidemic – Addiction and overdoses are ravaging formerly industrial areas, where many of the blue-collar, non-college educated Trump voters live. AmeriCorps programs have done impressive work on this crisis.

For instance, 44 AmeriCorps members have been working southern and eastern Kentucky with Operation UNITE, which provides drug abuse education to elementary school students. Last year, AmeriCorps members taught 3,378 students, recruited 8,240 adult volunteers, sponsored 53 “UNITE Clubs” and tutored 1,573 students in math (resulting in a 30% increase in math knowledge), according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Not coincidentally, Operation UNITE, was created by Rep. Hal Rodgers, the Republican who used to run the House Appropriations Committee.

Imagine a massive deployment of AmeriCorps members to help quell the addiction crisis.

Veterans – Under Obama, AmeriCorps programs have tried to help military veterans as well as recruit them as volunteers. In Washington state, 50 AmeriCorps members (many of whom are veterans themselves) help struggling veterans access the services they need. Military recruitment offices now routinely tell people who are not physically qualified for the military to try AmeriCorps.

Jobs – If Trump’s number one issue is creating jobs, he should know that killing AmeriCorps would eliminate 80,000 of them, including 65,000 full-time jobs. In fact, Trump should seriously consider dramatically increasing the size of AmeriCorps to provide more jobs. Highly motivated young people are eager to serve. They just need the chance.

Ironically, Democrats have always tended to emphasize the “community” part of the “National and Community Service Act.”   If only someone would come along with a more nationalist appeal – unafraid to call Americans to a new patriotism. Seems like a pretty easy opportunity.

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, a platform for online memorials and life milestones. He's a Washington Monthly contributing editor, journalist and author.