Economy Inspires More to Do Community Service in U.S.
WASHINGTON, March 9, 2009, USA TODAY — President Obama's call to community service is getting a big boost from the recession. Applications are soaring at government-funded service programs, the stimulus package includes $200 million to boost those efforts and Congress is looking for more ways to expand opportunities to help others.
"There's a convergence of a great need for citizen service and a great appetite by Americans for service," says Alan Solomont, chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees the main government-funded service programs including AmeriCorps. That "perfect storm … will do the kinds of things for this generation and this country that military service did for the Greatest Generation."
Online applications are coming in three times faster than a year ago at AmeriCorps, which was created by former president Bill Clinton in 1993 and strongly supported by former president George W. Bush. Those who are accepted into the program agree to serve for roughly a year, for an allowance of just $11,400, tutoring needy children, building houses in poor communities, helping the elderly sign up for health care, responding to natural disasters and more.
Obama wants to expand the program to accommodate both the growing need and desire to perform community service.
He is proposing $1.13 billion in next year's budget for the umbrella corporation. That would be a $241 million increase from this year's budget and it would pave the way for AmeriCorps to expand from 75,000 positions to 250,000 in coming years.
At the Peace Corps, whose volunteers work overseas, applications are up 16% over last year. The recession has offered a selling point for recruiters: Serving "strengthens a resume," says spokeswoman Laura Lartigue.
In Congress, a Senate committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the Serve America Act, sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
The legislation would increase opportunities for community service in a variety of ways from offering tax incentives for employers who allow workers to take time off for service to setting up funds to help non-profit groups recruit more volunteers.
"As our nation confronts the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, an enhanced commitment to local and community service is needed now more than ever," White House budget director Peter Orszag wrote to Kennedy on March 6, encouraging the committee he heads to approve the legislation.
"As private citizens begin to do more in their communities," Hatch says, "in the long run, it will mean that the government will have to do less to provide for those in need."