AmeriCorps 20 Years Later: Make it a Priority

Helping people find their way out of poverty is a labor-intensive task.  Whether you’re talking about finding mentors, coaches, and tutors for youth or helping adults access benefits, learn English, find affordable housing, or launch a job search, it is often the one-on-one attention that makes the difference.

Today, a critical, but often invisible source of human capital committed to this purpose are AmeriCorps members, and the volunteers they lead.  People like Deenie Espinoza, who came to Pima Family Literacy as a GED student and then worked there as an AmeriCorps member in 1994.  A year later, she was hired as an AmeriCorps staff member and led advocacy efforts for Arizona adult education and family literacy programs.  Today, while pursuing her master’s degree, Deenie serves as Online Academic Advisor and Success Coach for The Learning House, where she mentors students to help them reach their goals.

Or Dayna Long, who served at the LA Free clinic and went on to become a pediatrician.  As a result of witnessing the ramifications of poverty and trauma on children, Dayna founded the Family Information and Navigation Desk (FIND) to addresses the social and environmental factors that profoundly impact health.

“I am still trying to tackle the upstream causes of inequity that lead to health disparities,” notes Dayna.

AmeriCorps has grown a generation of professionals, educators, and leaders committed to ending poverty.

Deenie and Dayna, winners of the AmeriCorps Alums National Leadership Award, are not lone cases.  Hundreds of thousands of people like them gave their time and talent through AmeriCorps early in their careers and changed their own paths as a result.

When President Clinton proposed AmeriCorps two decades ago, he imagined it would transform America in a few important ways: by providing needed services, creating opportunity for people who serve, and knitting together community.

And it has.

AmeriCorps members serving through programs like JumpStart, City Year, Citizen Schools, and College Possible are succeeding at helping low-income students start school reading-ready, stay on track, graduate, and go on to college.

Others serving through LISC AmeriCorps provide financial counseling, employment and skill training, and job placement, along with home buyer counseling and foreclosure prevention services.  Because many members come from the neighborhoods where they are serving, the program builds strong community leadership.

Just last year, we worked with Maria Shriver and LIFT to develop Shriver Corps, which engages AmeriCorps VISTAs to connect eligible low-income families with the educational opportunities, job training, and access to public benefits that can help them get on firm economic footing.

AmeriCorps also offers service opportunities through youth corps, which are designed to enable youth to learn while serving; tens of thousands of young people who were out of school and out of work found pathways back into education and the workforce through this program.

By allowing flexibility in program design, national service has fueled social innovation as organizations pursuing new strategies can make use of AmeriCorps members as ground troops.

And by enabling young adults to try on new careers — and opening their eyes to the challenges facing poor communities — AmeriCorps has grown a generation of nonprofit professionals, educators, and leaders committed to ending poverty through opportunity.

These programs build on the legacy of VISTA, which for fifty years has built the capacity of agencies on the front lines of the war on poverty and is now part of AmeriCorps.  VISTA has created lasting change by helping to establish programs in adult literacy, microfinance, health services and more.

The bad news:  together, AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA are less than one-third of their authorized size; they cannot engage even one-tenth of the young people who want to serve, according to polls.

Last week, President Obama and President Clinton joined together to celebrate the swearing in of this year’s class of 75,000 AmeriCorps members.  President Obama recognized the value of AmeriCorps when he ran for office.  As he put it, “Your own story and the American story are not separate — they are shared. And they will both be enriched if we stand up together, and answer a new call to service to meet the challenges of our new century.”  He was right.

The President also pledged to “ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.”

He still has time to make that happen by putting necessary political capital behind AmeriCorps and working with Congress to make this program the priority it ought to be.



First Person

The Floor Beneath Our Feet

Last year, I participated in AVODAH’s Jewish Service Corps in New York City, engaging in antipoverty work, leadership development, and communal living with my fellow corps members.  AVODAH placed me with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), where I advocated for people who had been wrongfully denied public assistance and food stamps.

Throughout the year, I witnessed the remarkable resilience of my clients, and they remain at the forefront of my mind today.

One of the women I worked with owned a single bar of soap, and she used it to wash her dishes, clothing, children, and herself. Another client had to spend her last ten dollars to buy diapers for her daughter, but that meant she couldn’t afford the $2.50 subway ride to see her doctor and get treatment for her chronic seizures. A different client lived three miles away from the nearest food pantry, and she walked there in the winter three times a week, while pregnant, after the food stamps ran out.

These stories may seem extreme, but they are hardly unique. In New York City, 31 percent of children live below the poverty line. In a city of just over 8 million people, 1.9 million must turn to food stamps. It is not surprising that so many New Yorkers need nutrition assistance as 45 percent of people in NYC live below 150 percent of the poverty line, which translates to less than $35,775 a year for a family of four. For far too many in our city, access to food, housing, and healthcare is a daily struggle and never a certainty.

I finished my AVODAH service in July, but these individuals continue to face crises on multiple fronts. Some have cancer and cannot afford to go to the doctor. Many face eviction. Most skip meals to feed their children. Nearly all have no computer or access to the Internet.

How can families start climbing the ladder of social mobility when they have no solid floor to stand on?

In my work with NYLAG, I learned first-hand that public assistance is often critical to a family’s survival. I saw that a $215 monthly rental subsidy could avert a person’s pending eviction and that $347 a month in food stamps could allow a mother and her daughter to start eating healthy meals together. What at first seemed like modest amounts made noticeable differences in people’s lives.

At the same time, it quickly became obvious that our system of public benefits is hardly enough and needs fixing. Who can find an apartment in NYC for $215? How can a mother and her child afford enough food with $347 a month, $11 a day? What are we trying to accomplish by providing people with public benefits that are hardly enough to get by?

We use many metaphors to justify public benefits, recalling the importance of safety nets and the need for ladders out of poverty. But the metaphor most appropriate to me is that people need a floor beneath their feet. How can families start climbing the ladder of social mobility when they have no solid floor to stand on, when they are free falling through an abyss?

For public benefits to meet their goals, they should ensure that every American has access to the basic goods and services they need to survive. They should be sufficient so that families can afford adequate housing, nutrition, healthcare, and education – the primary prerequisites for family stability and mobility.

To be sure, one of the goals of public assistance should be to help those who can work find jobs. My clients who can work desperately want stable employment because they know that a reliable income offers them the best chance to provide for their families. But a parent who spends half his week in housing court, or who cannot afford child care, or who has to race between the doctor’s office and a welfare appointment, faces significant barriers to finding a job. Public assistance can provide the stability people need to pursue regular work. Cuts to social welfare programs may improve short-term budgets, but they inflict great costs on society by exacerbating the instability of people living on the brink in this country.

It is appalling that our neighbors, people living in our same zip code, might have a single bar of soap or skip meals to feed their children. Providing for people’s basic needs is both just and good public policy. We cannot let people in our midst starve or go homeless, and offering basic stability makes it easier for people to find reliable employment if they are able.

Our democratic principles and economic justice are indivisible. If we truly believe that all people are equal and deserve the same rights and opportunities, then we must ensure that every American has an open path towards a noble wellbeing.




Political Courage and Homelessness in New York City

Few things in life are rarer than real political courage.

How often do you find political leaders, particularly elected officials longing to stay elected, standing up for locally unpopular issues at the height of their controversy? This is the province of unique experience, strange curiosity and genuine oddity.

Yet at a time of dramatically increasing stigmatization of poor and especially homeless people, particularly in New York City’s Queens Borough where several new homeless shelters have or are scheduled to open, New Yorkers have been treated to an extraordinary show of bravery from political leaders speaking out for what is unpopular among their electorate seemingly just because it’s the right thing to do.

That’s about as quirky as the Big Apple itself.

In July, the City’s Department of Homeless Services opened a family homeless shelter in the defunct former Pan American Hotel in Queen’s Elmhurst neighborhood. It opened on an emergency basis, meaning without the normal requirements for review, public notice and community input.  The emergency occurred because the City is required to provide shelter by court order, but increasing homelessness – especially among families – resulted in there being no more room at bursting-at-the-seams city shelters.

The emergency allowed for speed in opening the new facility, which promptly filled and then overflowed with homeless people, but it most assuredly didn’t avoid the generally expected response of “Not-In-My-Backyard” protests. For weeks, residents and community groups in the heavily immigrant neighborhood held demonstrations regularly.  Sometimes it got ugly, including scenes on TV of locals screaming at shelter residents – including teenagers and younger children – name-calling, and alarmingly threatening crowds.

Then a remarkable thing happened.

It’s not just about providing the resources to support these programs, it’s about providing a little bit of hope.

Elmhurst’s City Council Member, came to the shelter  and publicly handed backpacks out to the kids as part of a back to school drive. A former school teacher, he talked about the children’s education and offered shelter residents encouragement. He did this in public, in his own district, where there was charged opposition to the shelter.

That’s a profile in courage.

Shortly thereafter, the City Council’s Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents an adjoining, mostly middle class Queens district, wrote an article in the Daily News about his own family’s experience with poverty and homelessness.  His was an all too common story—a lost job, his family wearing out its welcome in the homes of extended family, and then living at an “awful place”—a city shelter circa 1970. It was a story most people who knew or voted for the Councilman had never heard.

Van Bramer succeeded in putting a face on homelessness. He captured many readers, if only briefly, in the realization that the next homeless family might be very much like their neighbors, their relatives, or perhaps even their own family.

“As the city declares war on inequality and Mayor de Blasio rightly takes a humane and honest approach to ending homelessness, we must all be part of the solution,” Van Bramer wrote. “All human beings have a right to shelter. Some may say that’s feel-good liberalism run amok, but in the City of New York, it happens to be the law. We must house our homeless and that means finding places for families like mine to live and begin again.”

Telling his story, at that particular moment, is another profile in political courage.

In these times, when poverty and homelessness are so stigmatized, it’s inspirational to see these acts of courageous leadership. As Van Bramer writes, it’s not just about providing the resources to support these programs, it’s about providing “a little bit of hope.”





Broadening the Fight for $15

At 6 a.m. last Thursday, a small group of people gathered at the Burger King on the corner of North Avenue and Hunt Street in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. They were fast food workers, home care workers, and those who support their cause. By the time the sun came up and North Avenue began to bustle an hour later, their numbers had doubled to about 40 people.

“We can’t survive on 7.25!” they chanted as cars zoomed by. When the light was red, they shouted at the cars, “Honk for 15!” Many drivers happily obliged.

This was the first in a series of actions held last Thursday in concert with workers across the country fighting for a minimum wage increase. The “Fight for 15” campaign, named after the goal of attaining a $15 minimum wage, is backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), community-based organizations like Atlanta Jobs With Justice, and many individual workers.

For several workers, this was not the first action they attended for wage increases.

“This is my third one,” said Armondo, a local Burger King employee. “My manager and I got into it a little bit because I’m supposed to be at work. But this is important, so I’m here.”

Keyona, who also works at Burger King, has been involved in other actions too.  “This is like my fourth time. It’s all right—trying to get more money for us to live [comfortably],” she told me.

According to Armondo, the group of about 40 workers and organizers meets three times a month to plan actions like these. They are mostly fast food workers from a number of different establishments, including Taco Bell, Zaxby’s and Domino’s.

Thursday’s actions, however, included a number of home care workers as well.  Marie has been a home care worker for 26 years and is also a fast food worker.  She lives and works in a group home Friday through Sunday; works as a delivery driver for Domino’s pizza Monday through Thursday evenings; and watches children in her home Monday through Friday during the day.

Even with three jobs, Marie still has trouble making ends meet. “The rent was due on the first. It’s the third. I haven’t got it,” she said. “The car insurance is $200. I haven’t got it. The gas bill is $143. I haven’t got it.”

With low wages and few hours, the workers often need assistance to support themselves and their families. “I make just enough to pay rent,” Armondo said.  “I have to ask for help from my family for other things.”

Some, like Yolanda, also a Burger King employee, qualify for some government assistance, but still need to ask family for help. “I don’t work enough hours for childcare [assistance], but I qualify for food stamps. If it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t even be able to work because I wouldn’t have anybody to watch my child.”

Keyona echoed similar challenges; “I get food stamps, but you can’t pay bills with food stamps.”

When people are unable to pay their bills, it doesn’t just affect them. “When you have to ask your 23-year-old daughter to help you pay your cell phone bill, that is humiliating,” Marie said.

Bringing in home care workers like Marie is part of a broader effort to make the Fight for 15 movement more inclusive and far-reaching. Rather than pushing for higher pay and better working conditions for a specific group, SEIU and its partners are fighting for changes to the minimum wage at the municipal, state and national level that would impact all workers. The Center for Community Change—where I am a Writing Fellow—is one of the organizations that is actively supporting Fight for 15 efforts nationwide.

So far, the campaign’s efforts appear to be paying off. Since the Fight for 15 started about two years ago, 13 states as well as 10 city and county governments have raised their minimum wages.  Seattle raised its wage to a groundbreaking $15 an hour, and San Francisco residents will vote in November on whether their city will do the same. We certainly have not seen the end of the fast food worker strikes.  The only question that remains is how many more states and municipalities will join the growing ranks of those that are doing the right thing and raising the minimum wage?

For Marie, taking part in the actions is important.  “When I do this, I know it doesn’t stop with me,” she said. “We’re not just speaking up for ourselves; we’re speaking up for all the workers out there like us.”




Kentucky Shows What Can Happen When a Poor, Conservative State Expands Medicaid

In a state best known for horses, bourbon, and poverty, a quiet transformation is taking place. Kentucky ranks in the bottom five for almost every health statistic imaginable. It’s also been among the most vigorous of state actors in implementing the Affordable Care Act. That combination makes it an interesting case – what happens when a poor, unhealthy state does its best to take advantage of the ACA?

The short answer is that over a half million people – in a state of only 4.4 million – sign up for healthcare. About 75 percent of those who signed up didn’t previously have health insurance, so the uninsured population has dropped by 42 percent and the uninsured rate has gone from more than 20 percent to less than 12 percent.

Although the health-care exchanges that were created by the Affordable Care Act have gotten most of the news coverage so far, it’s the expansion of Medicaid that has had the biggest impact, with about 80 percent of the newly insured in Kentucky getting coverage through Medicaid.

In the Supreme Court’s June 2012 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the court ruled that states could opt out of the Medicaid expansion without losing any of their current Medicaid funding. Many policy analysts didn’t think the ruling would have a major impact, since the federal government is paying for the entire expansion for the first three years and gradually reducing to 90 percent in 2020. As MIT healthcare economist and Affordable Care Act architect Jonathan Gruber put it, “When the Supreme Court decision came down, I said, ‘It’s not a big deal. What state would turn down free money from the federal government to cover their poorest citizens?’”

More than a few, as it turns out.

Only 27 states and the District of Columbia have opted into Medicaid expansion.  In Kentucky’s case, it found that expansion would actually save money, delivering a $15.6 billion boost to the economy while creating almost 17,000 jobs—all while insuring its most vulnerable citizens. As Governor Steve Beshear wrote in a New York Times op-ed defending the decision, “…to those more worried about political power than Kentucky’s families, I say, ‘Get over it.’ … and get out of the way so I can help my people. Here in Kentucky, we cannot afford to waste another day or another life.”  He called the reform “the single most important decision in our lifetime for improving the health of Kentuckians” and said the state would “come out ahead in terms of both health outcomes and finances. In fact, if we don’t expand Medicaid, we will lose money.”

In contrast, as Gruber notes, the states choosing not to expand Medicaid “are not just not interested in covering poor people, they are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.”

The non-expansion states already have, on average, poorer health outcomes and large uninsured populations, and now they will fall even further behind healthier states. The difference is already visible in survey data, according to Gallup.


If the 23 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid were to instead opt-in, nearly 7 million additional people would likely receive coverage. These states are also passing up on more than $400 billion in federal funding.

This slow expansion of Medicaid is not unprecedented. In 1966, when federal funds for Medicaid were first available, only 26 states had programs up and running by the end of the year. By 1970, however, 48 states offered Medicaid. It wasn’t until 1982 that the last hold-out, Arizona, finally opted-in.

One of the tricks for providing healthcare in states where Obamacare is politically unpopular is—well, not too tricky: call it something else. Although ‘Obamacare’ remains unpopular in Kentucky, ‘Kynect’—the name of the state’s health insurance exchange—is popular.

The faith community is also playing a major role in pushing for expansion, arguing that it is a moral issue, and noting Jesus’ role as a healer. Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Senior Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, reminded policymakers that the millions of people caught in the Medicaid gap “are not numbers, these are our church members and family members. So for us, this is a matter of life and death.” Towards the end of August, the Moral Monday Movement marched on 12 state capitols urging governors and legislators to expand Medicaid.

In my own church in Kentucky, I have already seen the benefits of expansion.  One of our members who works for wages that are too low to afford health insurance, but were too high to qualify for Medicaid prior to expansion, finally has access to healthcare. For the first time she stopped worrying about what would happen to her if she were to get sick before she was old enough to qualify for Medicare.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute have provided a state-by-state breakdown of what opting-out of Medicaid expansion is costing in both human and financial terms. Find out what your state is missing out on, and then urge your decision-makers to follow Kentucky’s lead.



Editors Note: Listed states had not expanded eligibility as of July 2014. They include Indiana, Pennsylvania. and Utah, which have pending waiver proposals to expand eligibility. Totals may not add because of rounding. Note that Pennsylvania announced last month that it will expand Medicaid.