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.

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.

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.