AmeriCorps, the federal program and funding stream through which participants provide vital services in nonprofits and local governments, places 75,000 members a year across tens of thousands of sites. These funds flow to nonprofits and local governments through multiple different federal programs, both directly and through state service commissions (“state commissions”). The new $1 billion allocation to AmeriCorps and $400 million for a Public Health AmeriCorps in the American Rescue Plan, the potential for an additional expansion of national service through the Biden administration’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps, and the re-introduction of the CORPS Act, bipartisan legislation by Senators Coons and Wicker to expand and augment the program, all suggest a long overdue focus on expanding the program. Now is also the time to turn attention to using the program to more proactively advance equity.
We have written elsewhere about how to grow and strengthen the program. In this piece, we lay out concrete actions the Biden administration, Congress, and state commissions can take to use AmeriCorps not just to make progress on public health, education, and the fight against climate change, but to do so in ways that benefit communities and individuals who have not had equal opportunity to benefit from AmeriCorps. We specifically recommend:
- Improving pay and benefits for members;
- Expanding eligibility to historically excluded and underrepresented groups;
- Expanding recruitment of historically excluded and underrepresented groups;
- Strengthening workforce development for members, in order to put more of them on high-quality career pathways;
- Reducing barriers and improving supports so that a greater number of small, community-based organizations can participate in AmeriCorps;
- Investing in and supporting state commissions to focus on equity;
- Supporting and piloting innovative models of service; and
- Improving data collection and transparency.
Many of these recommended actions are geared specifically toward reducing the barriers faced by (1) smaller, community-based organizations led by people of color to becoming AmeriCorps grantees, and (2) youth of color and low-income youth to becoming AmeriCorps members. Addressing the first challenge could also address the second, as supporting more organizations led by local leaders of color to become grantees may in turn bring in more community members to AmeriCorps roles. This goal is especially critical as we look to recover from the economic devastation that has impacted communities of color, and young people in particular, as a result of the pandemic. A more equitable AmeriCorps program can improve immediate and long-term employment and career pathways for young people in these communities. (People who are 17 or older are eligible to serve in AmeriCorps.)
On June 21, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), also known as AmeriCorps,1 announced plans for the additional $1 billion in AmeriCorps in the American Rescue Plan. These plans will make meaningful progress on several of the recommendations that follow, including increasing the member living allowance, providing an increase in flexible “formula funding” and other resources to state commissions, and expanding the use of planning grants to help bring in new grantee organizations. These steps are laudable, but they are all made possible by this temporary infusion of resources, and more can be done. These investments—and these policy shifts—must be maintained and expanded upon in coming years, and Congress must act to make them viable for the long-term. Various pieces of legislation, most notably the bipartisan CORPS Act, led by Senator Chris Coons, also include components of these recommendations.
To develop this piece, we spoke to representatives from three AmeriCorps community-based organization grantees (two current, one former), three state commissions, an AmeriCorps intermediary organization (which receives AmeriCorps funds and re-grants them), a philanthropy that works closely with AmeriCorps programs, and several policymakers and experts. We also reviewed written recommendations by Volunteer Iowa, Service Year Alliance, the Schultz Family Foundation, and America’s Service Commissions. We are indebted to each of these individuals and organizations for their leadership and work to advance equity in AmeriCorps.
Improve pay and benefits for members.
While AmeriCorps creates critical opportunities to both serve communities and begin a career for so many members, many of the structures of the program create barriers to participation for lower-income youth and youth of color. To address these barriers, Congress and CNCS must take substantial steps to ensure members of all backgrounds can participate.
1. Increase current member living allowance and the cost per member service year (MSY) provided to grantee organizations for each member they host.
For many participants, AmeriCorps doesn’t pay a livable wage, locking out those who do not live at home or receive financial support from their families. The American Rescue Plan will temporarily allow for increased living allowances, but as of this service year, VISTA has an annual living allowance that starts at about $12,000 in lower-income areas; for AmeriCorps State and National, the minimum living allowance is just above $15,000. And for organizations, the MSY amount given to each grantee—up to a maximum of just over $16,000 for a one-year full-time AmeriCorps State and National member under current regulations—comes nowhere near covering the full costs of supporting a member. Some AmeriCorps programs already fundraise from philanthropy or devote public dollars to establish a livable wage. California has increased its living allowance and education awards for its new Climate Action Corps with philanthropic contributions, and the Schultz Family Foundation and Serve Washington in Washington State significantly augmented living allowances for their WA COVID Response Corps so that they reach 80 percent of the living wage in the members’ county of service. But remedying these shortfalls from the federal level is core to the program being able to bring in diverse members and support them well nationwide. Congress and CNCS should raise the floor of the living allowance for all AmeriCorps programs and provide additional funding through an increased MSY, potentially linked to county-level living wage data to support programs in exceeding this floor and creating additional wraparound services. (Current statutory language already allows CNCS to raise the cost per MSY and the living allowance, but any increase in the MSY not tied to additional appropriations from Congress would create a tradeoff between the quantity of AmeriCorps positions, and the living allowance for members. And raising the living allowance without raising the MSY, as CNCS appears set to do with its new $1 billion allocation, leaves programs to raise additional funds to close the gap, which can again exacerbate program inequities). Congress increasing funding for the program would eliminate this tradeoff.
2. Expand benefits for members.
Beyond their small living allowance, most AmeriCorps members receive little in the way of additional benefits and supports. Congress and CNCS should provide additional funding for needed benefits to members—such as housing support, transportation, and mental health services—to enhance the program’s ability to serve a more diverse set of corps members well, and create a more supportive and inclusive program. The need for these services may differ by placement type and geography, but their provision creates additional costs for grantees, and, in some cases, counts against member living allowances. In addition, child care subsidies are currently provided by CNCS directly to child care providers, but for a small amount that doesn’t cover the true cost of child care. Some grantees who choose to provide significant wraparound supports, such as training and career coaching to their members, count these as essential to their high retention and graduation rates, and placement on high-quality career pathways. But in order to do so, they are taking on substantial additional costs not covered by federal funds.
3. Increase the amount and eliminate the taxability of the education award.
After their service, Corps members receive an education award of approximately $6,300 (linked to the maximum Pell grant award), which can be used on educational expenses at qualified institutions of higher education, such as repaying student loans or paying for further education. At approximately $6,300 for a year of full-time service, the education awards often aren’t large enough to cover the cost of a single year of in-state public university tuition; moreover, these awards are currently subject to federal (and usually state) taxes. These awards are sent directly to institutions of higher education or student loan holders; but the member is taxed for the amount as if it were income. This means AmeriCorps alumni find themselves with a tax bill—which sometimes can be over $1,000—for money that they never actually see. Congress could act to both increase the amount of the Education Award, for example, to twice the amount of the maximum Pell grant, as proposed in a temporary increase in the bipartisan 2021 CORPS Act, and eliminate the award’s taxability. The CORPS Act also addresses this taxability, as does the bipartisan, bicameral Segal AmeriCorps Education Award Tax Relief Act (H.R. 1794/S. 1355), which was introduced in the House and Senate in 2019 and may be reintroduced soon. (In addition, states such as Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska already do not tax the education awards at the state level. Other states are considering legislation that will allow them to not tax these awards either.)
Expand eligibility for historically excluded and underrepresented groups.
In order to enhance equity in the programs, eligibility for AmeriCorps should be expanded and programmatic requirements revised to increase opportunities for historically excluded groups, particularly those who are likely to reflect the communities served by the program.
1. Expand eligibility to include DACA recipients, refugees, asylees, people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and the Marshallese.
Current law requires any member of AmeriCorps State and National to be a citizen, national, or lawful permanent resident of the United States. (This is not the case for VISTA members, who can already be DACA recipients, refugees, asylees, and people with TPS). But to ensure AmeriCorps provides fair and equitable pathways to service roles, and maximizes the ability of programs to reflect the communities they serve, including immigrant and refugee communities, Congress should expand eligibility for all AmeriCorps programs to include DACA recipients, refugees, asylees, people with TPS, as well as those from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which remains in free association with and receives many other services from the United States.
2. Eliminate the National Service Criminal History Check.
Under current law, AmeriCorps members and grantee staff are required to go through a complex federal criminal background check in addition to state and local ones, ostensibly to protect vulnerable populations whom grantees serve. But for a variety of reasons well-documented in a forthcoming paper from the Center for American Progress, this process has become extremely burdensome for grantees and staff. The currently required National Service Criminal History Check is costly and administratively burdensome, and the results are frequently error-prone, sometimes resulting in clawbacks of funding from AmeriCorps grantee organizations and partial or entire education awards from members.
The currently required National Service Criminal History Check is costly and administratively burdensome, and the results are frequently error-prone, sometimes resulting in clawbacks of funding from AmeriCorps grantee organizations and partial or entire education awards from members.
Over the past decade, there has been bipartisan interest at the federal, state, and local levels to roll back similar requirements for employment in other contexts, based on a recognition that background checks prevent numerous qualified individuals from gaining employment (as well as housing, occupational licensing, and other necessities) and contributing to their communities. (Our colleague, Zaki Smith, has written about his personal experience with these collateral consequences, as they are known, here.) And as we consider how to advance equity within AmeriCorps, the checks discourage individuals who have non-disqualifying criminal histories from becoming members.
Congress should amend the National and Community Service Act to eliminate references to criminal history in the description of eligible applicants and instead require that grantees simply comply with existing state, local, and professional practice requirements regarding who is eligible to deliver different types of service as an AmeriCorps member, consistent with the how these screens apply to other employees. (CNCS and state commissions could provide capacity building for grantees to learn about and implement the eligibility requirements and checks for each of the host sites with which they work.) Details on compliance with this new policy could be part of organizations’ applications to receive AmeriCorps funding.
Expand recruitment of historically excluded and underrepresented groups.
Even if the program is improved to make it more accessible to a broader set of youth, applying to and enrolling in AmeriCorps is complicated and time-consuming, and more must be done to ensure enough youth from low-income communities and communities of color know about the program.
1. Work with local high schools, community colleges and universities, nonprofits, and other organizations that work directly with youth to ensure a broader set of young people are aware of the opportunity to serve in AmeriCorps; and support grantee organizations to do the same.
Local educational institutions, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and other organizations regularly interface with and have existing, strong relationships with youth, and can be an important point of contact to ensure a more diverse cross-section of young people are aware of the opportunities to serve in their own communities through AmeriCorps. CNCS should support state commissions to develop strategies for working with state educational agencies, school districts, institutions of higher education (including community colleges), and other organizations to share information about AmeriCorps opportunities within communities, including the ways in which AmeriCorps roles can create pathways to careers.
2. Update and streamline the member application and enrollment systems.
America’s Service Commissions, state commissions, and current and former grantees pointed out how complex AmeriCorps’ application systems are for members and grantee organizations. The member application system uses outdated terms for ethnicity, race, and gender that do not present AmeriCorps as an inclusive program, can take a very long time to grant applicants and their host organizations hiring approval, and can be difficult for young people to navigate. Multiple people we spoke to shared stories of low-income, would-be members who had offers from host organizations, but who ultimately took other jobs before starting their service because they were unable to wait weeks to hear back from AmeriCorps about whether their enrollment went through. One former grantee with whom we spoke had members apply directly to their organization for positions using a custom-built HR system, and worked with AmeriCorps to ensure that applicants wouldn’t have to go through its entire application process as well. The grantee organization would walk potential members through every step that was still necessary to become an AmeriCorps member with them, from before they started their positions through the beginning of their in-person training. The grantee would also take it upon themselves to ensure all members had needed paperwork, and use the separate HR system to track every step of the process. While AmeriCorps enrollment periods were shortened starting in 2018, the former grantee reported that these efforts had together brought thirty-day periods for enrollment down to three days in most cases. This example points to the amount of support needed to help young people navigate the multiple onboarding and approval steps between CNCS and host organizations; work that it is not realistic or fair to ask host organizations to take on.
Strengthen workforce development for members, in order to put more of them on high-quality career pathways.
National service programs must thoughtfully balance two overlapping but distinct goals: member development versus what a member can deliver to grantee programs’ clients and communities. But as AmeriCorps specifically looks to bring in more members of color and low-income members, it must be easier for programs to prepare corps members for career pathways after they finish their service. This focus will advance equity on its own, but it will also aid recruitment, helping potential members understand that national service can be a step towards a career, rather than a financial risk that might not be worth bearing.
1. Ensure AmeriCorps does not disincentivize career training for post-service careers.
Currently, AmeriCorps regulations cap the amount of time members can spend in professional development at 20 percent of their hours, and much of that programming typically needs to focus on their AmeriCorps service, not on longer-term skills and career development. CNCS should update this policy, excepting trainings that target post-service career development from the twenty percent cap.
2. Support state commissions to coordinate additional post-service career supports.
Congress should offer additional funding to state commissions to partner with higher education institutions, workforce development organizations, unions, and grantees to offer soft and hard skills training—and credentials or higher education credits, where applicable—that will help members begin successful careers or additional education or training programs after their service, focusing on sectors related to those in which members serve and high-growth sectors within states. Utilizing additional funding beyond AmeriCorps, one organization, whose members are entirely low-income, specifically set up a separate social enterprise to provide program graduates more training and jobs after they complete their AmeriCorps service. This grantee remarked that, especially when having members come from frontline communities, there needs to be a clear plan for getting graduates jobs at the end of their service, so it was critical that they offer these services. To serve members whose placements may not be in the industry where they want to build their careers, state commissions should also offer—or partner with others to offer—more general career exploration workshops.
3. Make it easier for AmeriCorps programs to serve as pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships.
Having young people complete pre-apprenticeships or apprenticeships in the trades can place them on a strong career pathway to a middle-class job. Yet despite often having members do work that could plausibly serve as a pre-apprenticeship program or count as on-the-job training toward completing a full apprenticeship, AmeriCorps programs are rarely designed to serve as pre-apprenticeships or apprenticeships. This challenge is made more complex by lack of alignment across current laws and regulations. For example, some apprenticeships that are funded through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) require 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. Full-time, year-long AmeriCorps terms that might theoretically be able to count toward that goal are 1,700 hours, but we only heard of a single instance of those hours counting toward an apprenticeship’s on-the-job training hours, and it required an extraordinary amount of effort by the program administrator to get the necessary approvals. In the next reauthorization of WIOA, Congress should make it easier for AmeriCorps programs to meet apprenticeship requirements, and to more easily be designated as pre-apprenticeships.
Reduce barriers and improve supports so that a greater number of small, community-based organizations (CBOs) can participate in AmeriCorps, and so that the communities AmeriCorps serves can have more of their own members participate in the program.
The AmeriCorps program is fairly complicated in terms of its structure and requirements, and can be challenging for smaller nonprofits to access and manage. Since these organizations are more likely to be run by community members, they are more likely to have the connections and relationships to recruit community members as corps members, and be better equipped to support them, if investments in their capacity are made consistent with the following recommendations.
1. Offer planning grants to smaller nonprofits that are not yet AmeriCorps grantees.
Under current federal law, state commissions can offer planning grants using flexible “formula funds” already provided by CNCS. These grants can fund support to help smaller organizations apply to AmeriCorps, build their capacity to plan for the future, access other funds, and improve their core work of serving communities. Planning grants can be successful even when recipients do not immediately become AmeriCorps grantees. Giving a small nonprofit the resources to plan a program expansion using service members is a capacity-building activity that, if completed, can improve the organization—and thus the lives of community residents—and help leaders better understand available sources of funding for expansion. Many state commissions already provide these grants, and CNCS has recently proposed to create a place-based planning grant opportunity to CBOs that are strategically aligned to local government priorities. This change should be extended: Congress should increase formula funds (beyond the American Rescue Plan’s temporary boost) to state commissions to allow them to invest further here and in complementary activities to recruit new grantees that reflect the communities they serve.
2. Allow for targeted waiving of matching funds requirements for new and/or smaller CBOs.
CNCS typically requires that grantees secure partial matching funds for their funding, starting at 24 percent in years one through three and gradually rising to 50 percent between years four and ten. But this can be a substantial burden for new and smaller programs that do not have an established philanthropic base. CNCS has the authority to waive matching funds requirements, as it has for grantees during the pandemic. It should leverage this authority to consider waiving these requirements for new and/or smaller grantee CBOs for a limited time period of up to three years, or one grant cycle, in return for organizations committing to work with state commissions and others to use that time to build their capacity to fundraise and develop stronger connections with philanthropies so they can secure matching funds going forward.
3. Update and streamline the grantee organization application systems and ensure that all organizational application documents are readable and accessible for grantees.
Current grant application systems can be complicated and are overdue for an update. For example, according to one grantee, their last application required information that may be difficult for budget-constrained nonprofits to provide, e.g., complex evaluation plans and metrics. While guidance documents are provided by CNCS and service commissions, they can be dozens of pages long and include dense, difficult-to-decipher language. (See here, here, and here for state AmeriCorps Request for Proposals as examples.) Applicants can ask questions of CNCS and service commission staff, but they are restricted in what information they may share with applicants. Also, multiple organizations mentioned the “eGrants” system often malfunctions as they are applying. The combination of updating and simplifying the application process, as well as associated documentation, will reduce the administrative burden and make it easier for smaller, lower-capacity nonprofits to apply for AmeriCorps funding. (Until a new and improved system is fully up and running, CNCS should provide additional technical support to the field in how to use the current system.)
4. Conduct an equity and inclusion review of all current CNCS regulations and guidance, and revise or streamline those that are creating more burden than upside.
While existing CNCS regulations were put in place with the good intent of protecting federal dollars, enhancing AmeriCorps’ impact, or supporting grantees, they have over time accumulated and become a substantial burden for grantee organizations, and in some cases, AmeriCorps members. CNCS should conduct an equity and inclusion review of all existing regulations and guidance, considering whether and how specific regulations are creating barriers to enhancing equity in the program, and identifying and revising regulations that are creating more cost than benefit. This review should especially focus on regulations that create barriers for smaller organizations that are more likely to be led by people of color, and on how to make member positions easier to attain for low-income people and people of color. As a part of this process, CNCS should gather input from state commissions, grantees and former grantees, current and former AmeriCorps members, CBOs that do not currently participate in AmeriCorps but indicate interest, and other stakeholders.
Invest in and support state commissions to focus on equity.
State commissions are a critical part of the AmeriCorps infrastructure, setting strategy at the state level for how programs can support local needs and selecting and supporting local programs. They can be a critical tool for enhancing equity, and many already are doing so. CNCS should require state commissions to take steps to enhance equity, diversity, and inclusion in the programs within their states, and provide them with additional funding to do so.
1. Increase diversity within their portfolio.
State commissions should prioritize identifying, recruiting, and supporting more CBOs led by people of color to understand the opportunities of AmeriCorps, and to prepare strong applications should they apply to the program. Beyond helping CBOs learn more about AmeriCorps, this support can build potential grantees’ capacity in program design and administration, financial management, and fundraising.
2. Provide resources, technical assistance, and capacity building support for both general organizational growth and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
State commissions should directly provide (or contract with others to provide) training and technical assistance on building a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable culture to current and new grantees. This support can focus on supporting grantees to do their work, from recruitment to relationship building to supporting members to be successful during and after their membership to hiring more low-income members and members of color.
3. Utilize intermediary organizations to reach more small CBOs.
Intermediary organizations—which apply for and receive AmeriCorps funds and positions, and then act as a passthrough to provide these funds and positions to other organizations—are capable of placing as few as a single AmeriCorps member at small CBOs without imposing a substantial administrative burden on them with regard to the application or program management. Exposure to the benefits of hosting members combined with technical assistance can help build the capacity of these nonprofits to the point where some eventually become full-fledged AmeriCorps grantees. CNCS could consider establishing larger MSY amounts for organizations serving as intermediaries that are enhancing diversity within the AmeriCorps portfolio and among AmeriCorps members, acknowledging the additional costs and responsibilities these intermediaries take on compared to traditional placement grantees.
Support and pilot innovative models of service.
1. Ensure that sufficient part-time program options exist for members.
While the law allows for part-time AmeriCorps program options, experts and practitioners we spoke to reported that in many geographic areas and for many grantee organizations, the majority of AmeriCorps positions are full-time. This reality closes the door on participation by individuals with other commitments, including jobs or care responsibilities, which those without significant financial resources are more likely to have. CNCS and state commissions should work to expand part-time options, making it easier for more young people to serve through AmeriCorps even if they have additional responsibilities.
2. Pilot innovative models that allow for easier placement in and build the capacity of small CBOs without creating substantial administrative burdens.
Congress and CNCS should pilot models for placing individual or small numbers of members in organizations that are not full-fledged grantees, much like some AmeriCorps intermediary organizations do now. This would allow for the placement of as few as one AmeriCorps member in smaller organizations without the substantial burden of becoming a full grantee, as opposed to having large numbers of placements in single organizations. For example, NYC Service, the in-part locally funded intermediary organization created by then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and still running today, has its Civic Corps. This program places a small number of members at each of dozens of nonprofit organizations, requiring relatively little paperwork and hassle for those organizations compared to what would be required to become a standard AmeriCorps grantee. Instead of having to rely on a city government as well-resourced as New York City’s, CNCS could have a subset of strong state commissions test whether this is a model that could substantially enhance equity. If successful, every state commission could be given the option to place Fellows. AmeriCorps and state commissions can also provide technical assistance to help participating organizations build their capacity to potentially become full-fledged grantees in the future.
Improve data collection and transparency.
Expanding diversity and equity in AmeriCorps requires being able to report on and track the demographic make-up of members and grantees, and set nuanced goals for improvement. Yet, CNCS and state commissions do not currently track and release demographic data in a comprehensive, systematic and ongoing way, with CNCS only reporting nationwide data.
1. Regularly collect and release more comprehensive data on AmeriCorps members and grantees.
CNCS should work with state commissions, grantees, and members to regularly collect information related to improving equity on the grantee portfolio and member demographics and outcomes. This will allow for a better understanding of the work of CNCS and AmeriCorps grantees, and whether AmeriCorps is recruiting and retaining members from the communities it serves, as well as how outcomes—including program completion—differ for members from different backgrounds. All member data should be collected for all who start the program, including those who do not complete. While this type of collection will create additional burden, it will ensure the program can focus on enhancing diversity and inclusion in a meaningful way. Data collected could include:
- demographic data on members, such as race and ethnicity, family socioeconomic data, and educational attainment of corps members—by state and county, as well as issue area (e.g., food security, public health) and placement type (e.g., which AmeriCorps program, duration of service);
- data on the percentage of corps members who are serving in the communities in which they grew up;
- demographic data on leadership of grantees;
- data on alumni’s programmatic and career outcomes, such as whether they complete their service, continue working in public service, enter careers related to their AmeriCorps placement, or work in in high-need geographies; and
- annual feedback from a demographically diverse sample of members— including those who complete and those who do not—about their experience, including the application process, their time in the program, and the training and support they receive (this type of feedback could also be collected through a philanthropic organization working with CNCS and a subset of grantees).
2. Require state commissions to set and report against goals to have corps members reflect the communities served, and to increase diversity among grantee leadership and state commission members.
CNCS should work with state commissions to set public goals around diversity in corps members, aiming to have corps members reflect the demographics of communities served over a set time frame, and to ensure corps members of all backgrounds complete their service at similar rates. State commissions should report both publicly and to CNCS on progress against these goals. In addition, commissions should report on whether grantee leadership demographics reflect those of the communities they serve. Additional goals could incentivize recruiting new, grassroots grantees, by creating targets that require diversity along lines of rural/urban settings, organization age, and budget size. In addition to existing requirements, CNCS should also require that state commission boards reflect the communities served—in terms of demographics and geography—and include representation of current AmeriCorps members or AmeriCorps alumni.
It’s Time for Our Nation’s Service Program to Truly Serve Everyone
AmeriCorps members have provided a tremendous service to the country over recent decades, and the program has the potential to provide crucial opportunities to the young people who need them most. As policymakers consider expanding the program, refocusing on equity will allow members to have an even greater impact, and for the program itself to better serve them and their communities.
- In 2020, CNCS was renamed AmeriCorps. For the purposes of this piece, we have continued to call it CNCS, to avoid confusion between references to the federal agency and references to programs funded by AmeriCorps.