In this Sept. 12, 2014 file photo, as President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton mark the 20th anniversary of the AmeriCorps national service program, hundreds of new volunteers are sworn in for duty at a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

When then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton first spoke about the idea for a national service program that eventually became AmeriCorps, the premise was simple: the federal government would help young people pay down their college loans if they engaged in public service for a year. AmeriCorps represented a civic call to action to young people from all backgrounds to improve their communities and consider a career in public service. Yet, when I signed up for AmeriCorps, I found the reality of the program to be very different from this grand vision. 

In 2019, I began my AmeriCorps service, excited to be assigned to a partner nonprofit in Upper Manhattan, organizing tenants to fight back against abusive landlords. When I collected my paycheck for my first paid position in public service, my wage was just over $7 an hour—not only less than minimum wage in New York City, where I lived, but also a 50-percent pay cut from my previous job as a bartender. 

I joined AmeriCorps for the same reasons that so many young Americans do: because I was drawn by the desire to serve and enter a career in public service. I deeply enjoyed helping community members request repairs, file complaints with the city, and prepare for legal action against neglectful landlords. I also helped organize community events and assisted with initiatives to improve neighborhood parks. And while I loved the work, I was constantly reminded of the financial hardship the program created for its corps members. 

Fortunately, I could live with my parents rent-free during my service; otherwise, the program would have been financially impossible. Other members of my program were not so lucky. Some took on multiple jobs to supplement the low living stipend, while others were housing insecure or resided in less-than-ideal living situations. 

Beyond the low living stipend, the program did little to prepare us for a career after our service. Our only support came from outdated resume-building workshops that most members I spoke with found unhelpful. I found this troubling. If AmeriCorps aims to create the next generation of civic-minded public servants, corps members need career support and professional development beyond basic training.

A few months before the end of my service year, the nonprofit where I worked received a grant, allowing them to hire additional full-time staff. They offered me a job (paying more than double my AmeriCorps living stipend) if I could start on a relatively quick timeline. Excited by the opportunity, I informed the AmeriCorps program staff, assuming such an offer was the ideal endpoint for a term of service. Instead, they told me that to take the job, I would have to resign from AmeriCorps, forfeiting my education award because I had not technically completed the full year. I didn’t want to give up the job offer, complete the program, and begin the job search anew while ineligible for unemployment assistance. So I chose to quit AmeriCorps, grateful for the opportunities it provided me but frustrated that it failed to set me up for a career after service.

AmeriCorps needs to embrace equity-based reforms if it hopes to be an accessible path into public service for young Americans from all backgrounds. Chief among these reforms is the need to raise the living stipend. There was a glimmer of hope this past year—a proposal to include AmeriCorps in the Build Back Better agenda, along with congressional funding to create a new Civilian Climate Corps (CCC). This funding would have increased the number of service members, raised the AmeriCorps minimum wage to $15/hour, and provided billions for its administrative needs. Unfortunately, the funding for AmeriCorps and the CCC was cut from the final iteration of the reconciliation package, the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Last month, I released a report for Next100, a startup think tank working to diversify the policy sector and empower impacted communities to develop policy, outlining steps that the agency, Congress, and the Biden administration should take to advance workforce development in the program. One of the major burdens stopping AmeriCorps programs from offering adequate workforce development is the 80/20 rule, which states that members can spend no more than 20 percent of their overall service time on educational and development activities. Intended to keep participants service-oriented, the rule has adversely resulted in many AmeriCorps programs struggling to train their members, offer skill building, and provide adequate workforce development opportunities within the time allowed by this rule. To remedy this, the AmeriCorps agency, with Congressional authorization, should exclude training that targets post-service career development from the 20 percent cap. Moreover, the agency should create a “Workforce Development Program Track” that AmeriCorps grant recipients can opt into. Within this track, eligible programs would be exempt from the requirements of the 80/20 rule and instead would be responsible for meeting certain professional development goals, such as providing a useful credential, working with a high-need population, or tracking post-service outcomes for members. 

The AmeriCorps federal agency should also begin collecting and tracking data on post-service outcomes for AmeriCorps members, including how long it takes for graduates to find a job or postsecondary educational opportunity after their service, what they are paid in those positions, and whether they stay in public service. Such data would help the agency better understand which of its programs are most successful in connecting members with professional or educational opportunities after their service year and empower programs to improve their workforce development training. In doing so, AmeriCorps must be mindful that many grantee organizations are already overwhelmed by its grant requirements and seek to not only streamline this data collection but also offer additional sources of funding to cover the costs of increased reporting requirements, perhaps through a new data collection pilot program.

Lastly, AmeriCorps should embrace interagency partnerships to strengthen workforce development, taking advantage of existing programs. The agency could partner with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), for example, to identify opportunities to braid together federal funding streams, combining AmeriCorps funding with DOL funding sources such as employment and training administration programs, dislocated workers grants, and reentry employment programs. Doing so would allow participants to gain the benefits of AmeriCorps service while also receiving the training, workforce development, and wraparound services already funded by the DOL.

I joined AmeriCorps for all of the reasons President Clinton laid out so many years ago—because I wanted to help the most vulnerable members of my community and begin what I hoped would be a career-long journey in public service. AmeriCorps can still live up to those grand ideals, but only if the agency, Congress, and the Biden administration embrace workforce development best practices and pay corps members better wages. With these changes, the program can truly be an accessible, equitable, and empowering pathway for young people to start their careers in public service.

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Robert Godfried (@RobertGodfried) is a policy entrepreneur at the think tank Next100 and author of the recent report, How Embracing Workforce Development Can Set Up AmeriCorps Members for Post-Service Success.