If Congress passes a reconciliation bill, the legislation will likely establish a Civilian Climate Corps (CCC), giving youth across the country the opportunity to improve the sustainability and resiliency of their communities. This is an exciting proposition! I have written previously on the potential of a CCC to advance equity and help combat climate change. But the creation of a CCC should also be leveraged to build on and improve the country’s existing national service program, AmeriCorps.
AmeriCorps already employs about 75,000 youth a year at tens of thousands of sites across the country, advancing progressive priorities that supporters of a new CCC care about. Since the 1960s, members of what would come to be called AmeriCorps have provided vital services to communities of all sizes in every state, including tutoring in public schools, public health agencies, and, yes, conservation. Numerous AmeriCorps grantees are already working on projects that would fit into a CCC. Green City Force in the Bronx uses AmeriCorps funds to employ and train public housing residents in green careers by having them grow and distribute produce, construct green infrastructure, and engage their neighbors in sustainability initiatives. California’s Climate Action Corps has 300 members organizing local resiliency projects and creating green service opportunities for schools, private companies, and individuals in frontline and low-income communities around the state. Like a CCC would, these programs aim to provide a year of service to young people looking to serve, in communities in every state, and provide them with a living stipend and an educational benefit to pay for postsecondary education.
While AmeriCorps has a strong track record, Next100 and many other national service programs and advocates have written on how AmeriCorps can better advance equity by becoming more accessible to people who live in the communities AmeriCorps serves, and by better preparing them for careers after they leave. Many CCC proponents are rightfully pushing for strong equity measures like those Next100 recommends including in the CCC, ranging from a $15-per-hour minimum wage to ensuring that members come from frontline communities and that the program provides significant training for sustainable careers. These provisions, among others, are critical: they would make the CCC attractive to people from low-income backgrounds, allowing them to serve their communities and receive meaningful professional development on a pathway to a good job.
However, if Members of Congress create a CCC with such strong benefits without bringing AmeriCorps’ up to the same level, they will have effectively created two tracks in national service. Advocates for a CCC, like us, certainly do not want large numbers of AmeriCorps positions in, say, food pantries sitting vacant, but this possibility becomes more likely if one national service opportunity becomes far superior to the other.
Instead, Congress can and should use AmeriCorps’ existing infrastructure to house a CCC—as some frameworks, like that of Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey, currently propose. Furthermore, alongside establishing a CCC, Congress must make parallel equity and benefits changes to AmeriCorps. This level-setting of policies will help make the United States more just and resilient while opening pathways into not just green careers, but also into education and other public service careers, potentially creating opportunities for hundreds of thousands more young people.