On Political Books

May/June 2011 No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

A mountain of studies now shows that AmeriCorps, the nation's biggest community service program, works. House Republicans want to zero out its budget.

By Melissa Bass

Serving Country and Community: Who Benefits from National Service?
by Peter Frumkin and JoAnn Jastrzab
Harvard University Press, 320 pp.

The American Way to Change; how national Service and Volunteers Are Transforming America
by Shirley Sagawa
Jossey-Bass, 256 pp.

In April 2009, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which put AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps-like program created under President Bill Clinton, on a path to grow from 75,000 to 250,000 members per year. Almost half of Senate Republicans (twenty of forty-one) voted for the measure, as did seventy House Republicans. This show of bipartisan support was as rare as it was timely. By more than tripling the number of AmeriCorps slots, the new law would give young people frozen out of the job market by high unemployment rates a chance to serve their country and communities at precisely the time when social needs are at their greatest.

Yet less than two years later, in February 2011, the GOP-controlled House voted to eliminate funding for AmeriCorps entirely. Sixty of the Republicans who voted to end the program had, two years earlier, elected to triple its size.

Such voting behavior cannot be explained by anything regarding AmeriCorps itself. The program had not substantively changed between 2009 and 2011. Nevertheless, the House vote signals that AmeriCorps’s supporters now have to put forth arguments defending the program’s basic reason for being—arguments that, two years ago, they might reasonably have assumed they no longer needed to make.

Fortunately, those interested in understanding the accomplishments of AmeriCorps—either to make a case for its continuation or, if the money can be had, to plan sensibly for its expansion—can draw on two recent books, Peter Frumkin and JoAnn Jastrzab’s Serving Country and Community: Who Benefits from National Service? and Shirley Sagawa’s The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers Are Transforming America. Each is an excellent contribution to the field, and together they complement one another well in terms of their authors’ perspective, focus, methods, and scope.

Frumkin and Jastrzab come to their work as academic and professional researchers, respectively; Frumkin studies social entrepreneurship and philanthropy, and Jastrzab evaluates efforts to aid young adults’ transition into work and careers. Shirley Sagawa, dubbed a “founding mother” of the national service movement, has worked on national service policy for three presidents. She also served as the first managing director of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that houses AmeriCorps’s three component programs. Those are the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a small, residential service program with military-type elements whose members often aid in disaster relief; VISTA, a Great Society-era antipoverty-focused program; and AmeriCorps*State and National, by far the biggest of the three, which provides grants to nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity so they can put AmeriCorps members to work. Some members serve full-time, others part-time. Many receive a small stipend for living expenses; all can earn an award to help pay for higher education.

Frumkin and Jastrzab’s work focuses more on explaining what servers gain from their experience, while Sagawa’s places greater emphasis on how service is helping to address the nation’s challenges. Frumkin and Jastrzab’s work is based on their extensive and outstanding new research: a quantitative, longitudinal study of AmeriCorps members and a qualitative, retrospective study of VISTA volunteers, both funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Sagawa’s work synthesizes a multitude of existing documentary sources and new interviews. In terms of scope, Frumkin and Jastrzab’s work focuses on AmeriCorps as a program, while Sagawa’s book places AmeriCorps in the context of the larger service movement. Read together, the books provide a multifaceted view of AmeriCorps, sometimes confirming and other times confounding what we might expect the program to achieve for both its members and those they serve. Both also provide valuable insight into the tensions that arise in a program intended to fulfill so many goals simultaneously.

AmeriCorps’s motto and top priority is “Getting Things Done”: members’ service is supposed to make a tangible difference for those they serve. Although we know more about the success of particular AmeriCorps-funded projects than we do about AmeriCorps as a whole, the best evidence suggests that the program is meeting its charge.

One way to measure the value of AmeriCorps’s service is to ask whether its benefits outweigh its costs. One admittedly rough method to gauge this—which Frumkin and Jastrzab use—is to compare AmeriCorps’s cost to the federal government (although it is not the program’s sole funder) to the value of members’ service, measured as the number of service hours worked times the average U.S. hourly wage ($18.77). By this standard the program is cost-effective: for every dollar the federal government allocates to AmeriCorps*State and National, for instance, members generate $3.52 of work, and even the more costly residential NCCC program returns $1.45 per dollar. But this doesn’t tell us the actual value of the work; it simply assumes that the work is worthy of an average wage.

What we’d like know is whether members are getting things done with the time they spend serving. One way to do this across the program is to ask beneficiaries and other community representatives to rate their local AmeriCorps projects’ effectivenes. When Aguirre International did this early in the program’s history, between 82 and 85 percent of those surveyed rated the overall project impact, quality, community impact, and achievement of project goals and objectives as outstanding, excellent, or very good.

Due to the diversity of AmeriCorps-funded projects—each is run by a different nonprofit group, focusing on everything from tutoring to staffing health clinics to coordinating volunteers— getting more detailed data on AmeriCorps’s results typically requires a project-by-project approach. Some projects are easily amenable to experiment-based evaluation: for example, we can measure whether preschoolers in the Jumpstart early education program who are randomly assigned an AmeriCorps mentor score higher on school-readiness tests than those assigned to a control group. (The answer is yes.) Others compare their own situation before and after AmeriCorps. In schools with AmeriCorps members serving as recess “coaches” through the nonprofit Playworks program, for instance, 70 percent of principals report a decrease in student fights. With the aid of VISTA members, the antipoverty group LIFT was able to increase its volunteer force by 450 percent and increase services provided by 68 percent in just six months. In other cases, AmeriCorps enables organizations to meet new challenges: following Hurricane Katrina, Equal Justice Works placed ten AmeriCorps attorneys and 106 AmeriCorps law students in the Gulf area to help meet residents’ legal needs and recruit volunteer lawyers and law students to do the same. Sagawa’s work profiles these and other AmeriCorps projects (as well as nonnational service volunteer efforts) that through studies and stories provide strong evidence that they are not only getting things done, but also solving real problems.

Melissa Bass is assistant professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi and the author of The Politics and Civics of National Service: Lessons from the Civilian Conservation Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps, published by the Brookings Institution Press.