Less than three months after he took office, and seven months after a large New York send-off, much of President Barack Obama’s volunteer service program – centered on bulking up AmeriCorps to 250,000 participants, with service opportunities virtually from cradle to grave – is headed to his desk for a signature.
After passing two different bills – the Serve America Act in the Senate, and the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act (GIVE) in the House – the two chambers settled on one version under the former name, which got final House approval on Tuesday.
The bill would vastly increase opportunities for service by young people and the stipends that go along with AmeriCorps service.
It is unclear exactly how the legislation will affect funding for AmeriCorps. During the presidential campaign, Obama called for tripling the size of AmeriCorps (which has funding for 75,000 volunteers per year), and he reiterated that stance in a March 6 letter to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
The bill does not contain an appropriation; instead, it would reauthorize and expand the focus of the programs and the number of volunteers needed.
During the campaign, Obama’s staff estimated that his entire service program would cost about $1.1 billion a year; the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the cost of the GIVE Act at $6 billion over five years and the Serve America Act at almost that much.
What Would Expand
In addition to young people, the new expanded elements of AmeriCorps would provide service opportunities for seniors, teachers, scientists, engineers, accounting and Internet technology professionals, and others not contemplated in the original service legislation passed almost two decades ago.
Four new service corps would be created: Clean Energy (to increase energy conservation and efficiency), Education (to increase student engagement, achievement and graduation), Healthy Futures (to improve health care access) and Veterans Service Corps (to improve services for veterans).
High school students would be able to give a summer of service and in return get a $500 educational stipend.
The education grant that AmeriCorps volunteers receive after their service would be increased from the current maximum of $4,750 to $5,350, with further increases pegged to the rising maximum level of Pell Grants (slated to rise to more than $6,000 in 2011.)
Volunteers who earn education awards would be able to transfer them to family members. For example, senior citizens could use the awards themselves or transfer them to a child or grandchild.
A corps of former service participants would be established to be deployed quickly during times of natural disasters and other emergencies.
The Obama administration has singled out its support for the Community Solutions Funds grant program, which would provide seed money for social entrepreneurs to test new volunteer service programs.
For a detailed report about how the legislation got through congressional debates and made it to the White House, see this story in the current issue of Youth Today.