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

In highlighting these successful programs, Sagawa shows the particular value added by national service participants, answering the question—often posed by conservative skeptics of the program—of why we should pay people to serve when so many volunteer for free. Her examples show that by serving full-time or over the long term, AmeriCorps members can provide leadership, consistency, and particular kinds of talent that others cannot. (Traditional social service providers love AmeriCorps for this reason.) Like the VISTA volunteer who oversees more than 200 volunteers at the Rhode Island Free Clinic, they can manage programs and recruit, train, and supervise community volunteers. Like the Jumpstart AmeriCorps members, they will be around long enough to make significant training worth an organization’s time, and they can work day in and day out with the same students. They can be top college graduates in Teach for America or on their way to becoming “green” skilled workers through a youth corps.

Identifying and profiling a wide range of particularly effective AmeriCorps programs not only gives advocates compelling stories to tell to a tightfisted Congress in the short term, it also provides a solid foundation for long-term growth. We know there are programs that make a real difference; what we need to know is how to better determine effectiveness, how to better support the most effective programs, and how to get more of them. Knowing in what ways, with whom, and how AmeriCorps works—in this case by studying its demonstrably high-impact programs—gives advocates their best chance to build on its successes and address its shortcomings.

Although AmeriCorps’s foremost purpose is providing service and getting things done, it has other goals as well, mainly focused on “member development.” On this score, the best evidence— provided by the Frumkin and Jastrzab studies—suggests a mixed and often unexpected record.

AmeriCorps explicitly strives to instill an ethic of service in its members, hoping to heighten levels of civic responsibility through lifelong volunteer activity. And it does for some of its members—those in the residential NCCC program and those in the State and National program who come without prior volunteer experience. But it doesn’t for most of its members, when compared to a group of similar individuals who expressed interest in joining AmeriCorps but did not ultimately join. There is a logic to this outcome: many of those interested in AmeriCorps are interested precisely because they already have a strong commitment to service, and for those who join, AmeriCorps allows them to express that commitment without altering it. Still, for a program that had hoped to boost lifelong volunteering by its members overall, including those with a background in service, this is a disappointing result.

Another important goal is to increase members’ willingness and ability to work across lines of difference. To help accomplish this, local projects are required to actively seek participants from diverse backgrounds, to create service environments that include a mix of races and classes. Earlier research showed that more than two-thirds of sites with at least ten members were moderately to highly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, creating the potential for cross-cultural learning. Further, even relatively homogenous AmeriCorps groups often work in demographically different communities, providing similar opportunities.

The Frumkin and Jastrzab study came at this issue from several angles: they gauged whether members gain an increased appreciation for diversity; whether they are more likely to participate in groups characterized by openness, consideration, and tolerance; and whether they are more likely to behave in ways that encourage these traits when they are in groups.

The results here are disappointing, with members scoring no differently than similar nonmembers with one exception: in the short term, AmeriCorps participation actually led NCCC members to have lower levels of diversity appreciation. Although less diverse than the State and National program, as a residential, team-based program NCCC was expected to foster especially high levels of group cohesion; instead the program’s intense environment may have temporarily increased interpersonal conflict.

Given the importance of these elements and the unexpected study results, AmeriCorps’s advocates need to take these findings seriously. But just because AmeriCorps doesn’t appear to increase civic responsibility or strengthen communities in the ways it most expected or originally intended to doesn’t mean it can’t, or that it doesn’t accomplish these things by other means. Indeed, it does so. For example, AmeriCorps members show an increased connection to community, as measured by their feelings of community attachment, thinking about how larger political issues affect their community, and awareness of how to meet community needs. They show increased levels of efficacy, the belief that they can identify and act on local problems and make a difference in their community. Finally, they show an increased willingness to try to make a difference and increased levels of community involvement, through attendance at local meetings and other community activities and events.

AmeriCorps also hopes to expand opportunity for its members, both by imparting work skills during service and making college more affordable afterward. Of the two, the education award has received far greater attention. It certainly may be justified simply as a reward for service, but it is also important to know whether it is serving its larger educational purpose. To what extent is it helping members pay for college and further their education? On the positive side, a large proportion of members—more than three out of four—make use of their awards. On the negative side, it turns out that members are no more likely to have completed college courses in the short term or earned a degree in the longer term. This may be explained by how little education the award came to buy: because the original $4,725 award did not increase for fifteen years even for inflation while college costs increased well beyond inflation meant that on average it came to cover less than one semester’s tuition at a public university. Given other sources of aid available to anyone, the award was not enough to give members an educational advantage.

That said, AmeriCorps members do gain a skill advantage that may result in any number of positive work outcomes. The Frumkin and Jastrzab study measured members’ self-assessment on a wide range of basic work skills, including problem solving, collecting and analyzing information, listening to and learning from others, resolving conflicts, leading teams, managing time and meeting deadlines, adapting to changing circumstances, and working under difficult conditions. While similar nonmembers identified no overall change in these skills during the study period, both State and National members and NCCC members did: after their AmeriCorps experience they rated their skills significantly higher overall than they had at the start of their service.

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.