We need to raise the AmeriCorps living allowance. Here’s why.

main.jpgRaise your hand if you got your start in the nonprofit sector as an AmeriCorps member. I did, my spouse did, many of our YNPN Twin Cities members did, and maybe you did too.  

I served two terms in AmeriCorps and can directly trace my career trajectory back through my current grant writing position to a corporate fundraising job and back to my AmeriCorps gig in corporate volunteer coordination experience. My spouse served as an AmeriCorps member with a conservation organization and is now a certified arborist, providing field support to AmeriCorps members in a full-time position at that same nonprofit. We are living proof AmeriCorps provides relevant entry-level experience to people looking to start careers in the nonprofit sector.

AmeriCorps is valuable in training entry-level staff and helping people get a foot in the nonprofit door, which is why we need to raise the living stipend.

Right now in Minnesota, AmeriCorps VISTA members earn $455 every two weeks, or $911 per month, pre-tax. That’s not enough to pay AmeriCorps members for the value of their work, and not enough for most people to live on. Yeah, I know there’s a $5,500 education award. Still doesn’t make it easier for people to buy groceries.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency which houses AmeriCorps, considers their members volunteers, yet their contributions aren’t valued at the same level as volunteers. Independent Sector estimates the value of a volunteer hour is $23.56, or $51,600 per year. How many full-time staff members at AmeriCorps programs make that, not counting the AmeriCorps members making $12,000 annually? Not many. Several staff members of AmeriCorps programs that I’ve spoken to recognize they lose good talent, either during the recruitment process or after a year of service, because of the low pay.

I get it. The point of the low AmeriCorps stipend is so AmeriCorps members live at the poverty line with those they serve. When I was in AmeriCorps (and after), I received public assistance. I also got help from my family, directly and indirectly. I remember crying in the grocery store because I was so thankful my brother came to visit and bought me food. Not everyone has family who can afford to support them, and many AmeriCorps members are responsible for helping support their families.

In reality, AmeriCorps only becomes an option for those who can afford it - a form of domestic voluntourism and contributes to a white savior complex that’s prevalent in the nonprofit sector. When you need outside support to serve in AmeriCorps, it makes it impossible for people from those low-income communities, often people of color or in rural settings, to serve among their neighbors. By paying AmeriCorps member so poorly, we are losing qualified individuals before they can even enter the talent pipeline.

Increasing the pay of AmeriCorps members is in the long-term interest of the nonprofit sector, and the sector itself should be loudly advocating for this position. If we want a talented, diverse workforce, equitable and inclusive to all, we need to pay AmeriCorps members more money.

Setting a poverty rate for AmeriCorps stipends sets low expectations for our young nonprofit employees, reinforcing the perception that nonprofit employees should be paid a pittance. At the very beginning of the talent pipeline, we’re telling entry-level nonprofit professionals it’s ok - even celebrated - to work for offensively low salaries. This impacts the value of salaries throughout a nonprofit professional’s career, and it’s not ok. We need to pay people for the value of their work, at living-wage salaries — an idea the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and other nonprofits in the Twin Cities area are embracing.

In budget-stretched nonprofits, it’s a hard sell. Paying just 10 AmeriCorps members the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (an additional $1.48 per hour over their current average of $5.77, assuming a mere 40 hour work week) would add over $26,000 to a program’s budget. There are 75,000 AmeriCorps members annually, which means an additional $1.95 billion in total per year. And that’s just for $7.25 an hour, not the $9.50 minimum wage in Minnesota. Not to mention you’d have to ask the federal government for that additional money, matched by nonprofits. It’s an unpopular, even aggressive stance, to take with our partners at state commissions and with the Corporation for National and Community Service. And with the Trump administration, it’s hard to tell what position he will take on AmeriCorps and national service, which historically has been under threats of defunding. Even with the political reality we face, the status quo is short-sighted.

The nonprofit sector relies on AmeriCorps members. They provide essential direct services and capacity building programs at thousands of nonprofits across the country. Former AmeriCorps members are at all levels of leadership in nonprofit, private and public sectors. So why, when people are fighting for $15 per hour minimum wage and advocating for living wages, are we leaving behind the people who teach in after-school programs, provide ESL classes and resume advice for new immigrants, preserve our natural resources, or help kids learn how to read?

A few Minnesota AmeriCorps programs have found creative ways to pay their members more. Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa offers higher living stipends to their members, paying a $1,355 monthly rate which is supported by a fee-for-service model. College Possible wants to retain their members from low-income backgrounds, and offers a $2,000 housing allowance for returning members who were Pell-eligible in college. Programs like these are making an effort to financially compensate members for the value of their essential work.

If we’re committed to equity, diversity and accessibility, we are morally responsible to advocate for raising the AmeriCorps living allowance. In the long term, it’s one step towards creating a more inclusive and diverse talent pool of nonprofit employees and building a more equitable society.

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