If you search Google for a picture of AmeriCorps, you’re likely to find young people in khakis painting, cleaning parks, and standing in nature while smiling for group pictures. While there are indeed thousands of happy, sweaty AmeriCorps members serving our nation in just this manner, this image does not represent the incredible diversity of national service – I, for instance, worked in an office helping nonprofits build capacity. This stereotype also helps fuel angry critics of AmeriCorps who claim the program is a waste of tax dollars, as well as an insidious lefty initiative. While the program has escaped elimination thus far, the debt ceiling agreement presents another opportunity for opponents of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS, which houses AmeriCorps) to propose its dissolution.
Given that many Americans, media pundits, and members of Congress have the wrong idea about AmeriCorps, the program must lead a radical shift in the national conversation if it is to regain bipartisan approval and retain its funding. If CNCS implemented a media campaign that vociferously promoted AmeriCorps not only as a vehicle for feel-good community service, but also as a program that can boost the number of exceptional individuals who are interested in working in government, it could convince Congress of its long-term value.
A recent study comparing public and private sector compensation concluded that while private sector jobs pay more, individuals in federal jobs tend to be less qualified. Suspicions that federal employment does not traditionally appeal to bright college graduates with unique and diverse skill sets is confirmed by a March story in the New York Times, which reported that the recession led to a 16% increase in the number of college graduates working for the federal government. Many graduates cited the poor economy and lack of private sector employment for their decision to look into federal and nonprofit jobs.
While this increase is positive, looking to the federal government as a last stop for employment in a bad economy is problematic; when the economy recovers, there will be no system in place to continue to draw these young graduates to federal employment. Further, the recent decline in the number of government jobs could destroy the recent 16% gain. Because a career in the federal government has more impact and could be more personally fulfilling than in the private sector, the trick is finding programs that promote the value of the public sector.
AmeriCorps is that program. In theory, both liberals and conservatives should rally behind AmeriCorps, because with a larger pool of ambitious, civic-minded individuals, government efficiency and productivity will increase. While one may or may not agree with CNCS policy to pay AmeriCorps members poverty-level wages, the cost of developing this talent is incredibly low. Whether you advocate for smaller or larger government, the net result of more talented public servants would be an improvement on the oft-maligned government bureaucracy.
Yet CNCS must change its strategy. It needs to recognize the talent and experience they already cultivate by educating AmeriCorps members – whether they participated in VISTA, NCCC, or State/National – on federal employment opportunities and benefits, on a practical and philosophical level. These efforts must be accompanied by a CNCS media campaign that promotes AmeriCorps as a training ground for leaders with innovative ideas on how to restructure our government, and as a viable solution to the talent gap between federal and private employees. Such a campaign would increase the utility of AmeriCorps in the eyes of voters and Congress.
While the importance of national service itself should not be undermined, AmeriCorps has the opportunity to impact the federal workforce while not simply changing, but updating and expanding our image of national service.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons