Last month, Chelsea Clinton and Jimmy Kimmel launched a PSA on Kimmel’s late night talk show that promoted Serve A Year, a new campaign that encourages young adults between the ages of 17-24 to serve a year as an AmeriCorps member. Modeled after the heralded Peace Corps program, AmeriCorps, a federally funded program administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. President Clinton swore in the first class of AmeriCorps members in 1994. The AmeriCorps program offers young people a small living stipend and a scholarship in exchange for 1,700 hours—or ten months—of full-time service. Organizations such as City Year, Public Allies, and Teach for America apply to receive funding in order to deploy their idealistic recruits in nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community organizations across the nation. Nearly one million Americans have served as AmeriCorps members in the past twenty years, yet the National Service movement is still fighting for AmeriCorps to become a household name.
At its core, the idea of Serve A Year is simple enough. Just as young people talk about where they went to high school or college, Clinton explained that the campaign’s ultimate goal will be achieved when the young people casually ask each other “where did you do your service year?” The spot featured Clinton as the smart/straight [woman] to Kimmel’s dumb/wise guy routine, in which Kimmel suggested that the campaign’s name be changed to the “National Ninja Warrior Squadron.” Albeit a little cheesy, the spot was an attempt to make service stick in the minds of the campaign’s college-aged target audience. The week the spot aired on Kimmel’s show, a major network sitcom featured a plot point where a main character decided to join AmeriCorps, describing it in layman’s terms as “the Peace Corps for America.”
For service organizations and AmeriCorps alumni, the PR generated by the campaign is exciting. As a proud alumnae of City Year and fan of Chelsea Clinton, I sincerely hope this proves to be the message that reaches beyond the walls of idealism and transforms the culture of millennial apathy. However, convincing young people to serve has never been as challenging as convincing Congress to let them. The reality is that unless the new guard of service warriors compels Congressional Republicans to fully fund CNCS and AmeriCorps, in the long run, increasing demand without increased capacity to match it could hurt the movement more than help it, particularly if those who are driven to serve are turned away at the door.
In spite of overwhelming public support among voters of all political parties and strong evidence that AmeriCorps volunteers are a cost-effective way to address many of America’s toughest social challenges, CNCS and AmeriCorps have suffered from chronic underfunding and threats of severe cuts. Since AmeriCorps’ inception, conservative Republicans in Congress publically criticized the program, touting it as a liberal pet project that only serves to make government larger and less effective. After 9/11 and during his 2008 Presidential Campaign, John McCain challenged this sentiment and helped Utah Senator Orrin Hatch in his co-sponsorship of the 2009 Edward Kennedy Serve America Act that was meant to increase AmeriCorps funding exponentially. In spite of the momentum that pushed that legislation forward, Congressional Republicans still refused to fund the agency in accordance with the legislation. As reported in a 2013 article written by an AmeriCorps and City Year alumnus Zach Maurin, 85 percent of the applications submitted in 2012 were turned away because Congressional Republicans refused to fund the program.
The service organizations that manage AmeriCorps programs must have the resources they need to effectively scale their efforts to reach full capacity. The Serve A Year campaign is a start, but much work is required before its goal to make service mainstream will become a reality. Unless Congress feels the political heat to adequately fund AmeriCorps, increased demand will do little to make service a common experience among young people or allow the program to reach its full potential.
Kristy Brown is a full-time MPA candidate at NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Kristy served as an AmeriCorps member with City Year New York in 2007-2009. She now proudly serves as the co-chair of the City Year New York Alumni Board and as a member of the City Year National Alumni Advisory Board. Kristy tweets @brownkristine.