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

These two books, then, provide scant fodder for those looking to argue against further funding of AmeriCorps, and plenty of evidence for advocates to make the case that the program is achieving its goals. Both books also offer recommendations for how the program can be improved. Whether one emphasizes getting things done or member development, Frumkin and Jastrzab’s call for more careful matching of members’ skills and interests with their service assignments makes sense. (Given AmeriCorps’s placement model, the challenge is how exactly to do this.) Other suggestions raise the question of trade-offs. From a member development perspective, it makes sense to target recruitment efforts to those without service experience, since they gain the most from being in AmeriCorps in several key areas. What we don’t know is whether these members contribute as much to the program through their service work. Conversely, from a service work perspective, AmeriCorps should certainly place greater emphasis on outcome evaluation and increase funding for programs that “move the needle on a problem.” What we don’t know is whether programs that have the greatest impact on problems also have the greatest impact on members. These works tell us much, and leave us wanting to know more.

Finally, some suggestions make the trade-offs plain. If one views AmeriCorps from an administrative perspective, it might well benefit from narrowing the focus of its work to fewer types of projects in fewer issue areas. A greater concentration of effort, as Frumkin and Jastrzab argue, would facilitate training and evaluation and likely lead to improved work outcomes over time. (There would be a cost in lost support from those whose work was cut, but the benefits might more than compensate.) But if one sees AmeriCorps as part of a larger movement—one designed to engage citizens in helping to solve public problems—AmeriCorps needs to be involved across the range of problems, perhaps even more than it currently is.

To a great degree, meeting the immediate challenge presented by the House Republicans’ vote and the longer-term challenge of fulfilling the Kennedy Serve America Act’s vision leads AmeriCorps’s advocates to the same place: in thinking about how to best remain viable and get bigger, AmeriCorps also has to think about what it does well and how it can get better. These books provide an excellent place to start.

If you are interested in purchasing these books, we have included links for your convenience.

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.