Budget cuts threaten AmeriCorps

Susan Du

The new GOP-proposed federal budget plan would cut over $4 trillion over the course of the next decade, including 100 percent of federal AmeriCorps funding, jeopardizing the future of the national service.

AmeriCorps, which has been described as the domestic Peace Corps, enables adults of all ages to serve in community improvement programs in tangent with local and national nonprofit groups. It is split into three main components: AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps NCCC. There are 2,663 AmeriCorps members serving in the state of Illinois.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the number of Northwestern graduates entering AmeriCorps has steadily increased since the recession, as mainstream job opportunities remained at a record low.

Brett Boettcher, assistant director at University Career Services, said part of what attracts college graduates to AmeriCorps is the program’s fixed, two-year commitment. He said it is an opportunity for recent college graduates to gain hands-on experience in social justice and community-building while they figure out their directions in life.

The elimination of AmeriCorps would also mean the end for various programs it funds.

“Teach for America is probably one of the largest employers on campus by far,” Boettcher said. “Losing AmeriCorps would have a tremendous effect.”

Various nonprofit programs in the Chicago area and Evanston draw from AmeriCorps assets in the form of funding or personnel resources. Several of these programs that employ current NU students or recent graduates include Jumpstart, Project YES! and LIFT.

Jumpstart is an organization devoted to enhancing early education for children of low-income families. Not counting Jumpstart programs in a handful of schools in the Chicago area, Jumpstart at NU currently employs 34 students.

Weinberg sophomore Dana Midura first got involved with Jumpstart as a freshman because he was interested in a work-study job not confined to an office.

On the budget proposed by some members of Congress, Midura said, “I know how huge of a network it is. I know how many people it employs. That would be remarkable.”

Even if AmeriCorps survived with a reduced staff, Midura said the impact on children in the community would be “a total shame.”

Project YES! is a service employed by the NU Settlement House to foster education for children from low-income families in Chicago and provide struggling schools in Chicago with teachers’ aides and tutors. According to Ray Crosland, chief development officer at NUSH, Project YES! would cease to exist if AmeriCorps lost federal funding.

“Some people say taking away AmeriCorps is just like pulling off the top card in a house of cards, but it’s really like pulling off cards in the bottom and the middle,” Crosland said. “Everything totally collapses.”

Last year NUSH documented 3,600 volunteer hours.

LIFT is a movement to combat poverty in five metropolitan areas in the U.S. with offices in Chicago and Evanston. It works with clients one-on-one to find jobs, housing and health care, etc. Currently, there are 50 NU student volunteers working with LIFT-Evanston. AmeriCorps oversees all operations.

AmeriCorps accounts for about 12 percent of LIFT’s budget, and AmeriCorps employees serve as site coordinators in LIFT offices.

“Poverty is a serious problem in Evanston,” said Ben Reuler, regional executive director at LIFT-Chicago. “Despite misperception, there is an unfortunate amount of need in the community.”

LIFT served approximately 1,000 families in need in the past year, he said.

“While elimination will hurt and sting, it likely wouldn’t debilitate LIFT,” Reuler said. “We could still commit to providing services. The larger issue is what the elimination of AmeriCorps would mean to our neighbors in Evanston and across the U.S. It would be absolutely devastating, and it would have a profound impact on vulnerable low-income residents of our communities.”

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Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.