Top 10 Solutions to Cut Poverty and Grow the Middle Class

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual figures on income, poverty, and health insurance. It revealed that four years into the economic recovery, economic insecurity remains widespread, and low- and middle-income workers have seen no significant wage growth over the past decade.

With the poverty rate at an unacceptable 14.5 percent and economic inequality stuck at historically high levels, one might assume that chronic economic insecurity and an off-kilter economy are the “new normal”—that nothing can be done to fix it.

But there is nothing “normal” or inevitable about more than 45 million Americans living in poverty. It is the direct result of policy choices. With different policy choices, we will see a more equitable economy—it’s as simple as that. 

Here are 10 steps Congress can take to cut poverty, boost economic security, and expand the middle class.

In the late 1960s, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. Not so anymore.

1) Create jobs.  

The best pathway out of poverty is a well-paying job. To get back to prerecession employment levels, we must create 5.6 million new jobs. To kick-start job growth now, the federal government should invest in our infrastructure by rebuilding our bridges, railways, roads, ports, schools and libraries, neighborhood parks, and abandoned housing; expanding broadband; develop renewable energy sources; and make other commonsense investments that create jobs and boost our national economy. For example, extending federal unemployment insurance would have created 200,000 new jobs in 2014. But Congress failed to act, leaving 1.3 million Americans and their families without this vital economic lifeline. We should renew federal unemployment insurance, and also build on proven models of subsidized employment to help the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged workers re-enter the labor force.

2) Raise the minimum wage.

In the late 1960s, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty.  Not so anymore. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 is a poverty wage, and had it been indexed to inflation it would be $10.86 per hour today. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and indexing it to inflation would lift more than 4 million Americans out of poverty. Nearly one in five children would see their parent get a raise. Recent action by states and cities shows that boosting the minimum wage reduces poverty and increases wages.

3) Increase the EITC for childless workers.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lifted more than 6.5 million Americans—including 3.3 million children—above the poverty line in 2012. Kids who receive the EITC are also more likely to graduate from high school and have higher earnings in adulthood. Yet childless workers largely miss out on the benefit—their maximum credit is less than one-tenth that awarded to a worker with two children. Policymakers across the political spectrum have called for boosting the EITC. Importantly, this policy change should be combined with a raise in the minimum wage—one is not a substitute for the other.

4)     Support pay equity.

With female full-time workers earning just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, we must take action to ensure equal pay for equal work. Closing the gender pay gap would cut poverty in half for working women and their families and add nearly half a trillion dollars to the nation’s gross domestic product.  Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act to hold employers accountable for discriminatory salary practices would be a key first step.

5)     Provide paid leave and paid sick days.

The United States is the only developed country without paid family leave and paid sick days, making it exceedingly difficult for millions of American workers to care for their families without having to sacrifice needed income. Paid leave is an important antipoverty policy—having a child is one of the leading causes of economic hardship. Additionally, nearly 4 in 10 private sector workers—and 7 in 10 low-wage workers—do not have a single paid sick day, so they must forgo needed income in order to care for a sick child or loved one.  The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, would provide paid leave protection to workers who need to take time off due to their own illness or that of a family member, or after the birth of a child. And the Healthy Families Act would enable workers to earn up to seven job-protected sick days a year.

6)     Establish work schedules that work.

Low-wage and hourly jobs increasingly come with unpredictable and constantly shifting work schedules. These erratic schedules make accessing childcare even more difficult and leave workers uncertain about their monthly income. Further, things many of us take for granted—such as scheduling a doctor’s appointment or even a parent-teacher conference at school—become herculean tasks. The Schedules That Work Act would require that workers receive two weeks advance notice of their schedules, create and protect an employee’s right to request needed schedule changes, and provide guaranteed pay for cancelled or shortened shifts—important first steps towards making work-family balance possible for all workers.

7)     Invest in affordable, high-quality childcare and early education.

The lack of affordable, high-quality childcare serves as a major barrier to reaching the middle class. Federal child care assistance reaches only 1 in 6 eligible children. One year of childcare for an infant costs more than a year of tuition at most states’ four-year public colleges. Poor families who pay out of pocket for childcare spend an average of one-third of their incomes.  Boosting investments in Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, as well as passing the Strong Start for America’s Children Act—which would invest in preschool, high-quality childcare for infants and toddlers, and home visiting services for pregnant women and mothers with infants—will help families obtain the childcare they need in order to work, and improve the future economic mobility of America’s children.

8)     Expand Medicaid.

Since it was signed into law in 2010, the Affordable Care Act has expanded access to high-quality, affordable health coverage for millions of Americans. However, 23 states refuse to expand their Medicaid programs to cover adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, which makes the struggle for many families on the brink much harder. Expanding Medicaid means more than just access to healthcare—it frees up limited household income for other basic needs, like paying rent and putting food on the table. Having health coverage is also an important buffer against the economic consequences of illness or injury—unpaid medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy. Studies link Medicaid coverage not only to improved health, improved access to healthcare services, and lower mortality rates, but also to reduced financial strain. It’s time for all states to expand Medicaid.

9)     Reform the criminal justice system and enact policies that support successful re-entry

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Today, more than 1.5 million Americans are behind bars in state and federal prisons, a figure that has increased fivefold since 1980. The impact on communities of color is particularly staggering: One in four African American children who grew up during this time period have had a parent incarcerated.

Mass incarceration is a key driver of poverty. When a parent is incarcerated, his or her family must find a way to make ends meet without a necessary source of income. Additionally, even a minor criminal record can result in lifelong barriers to climbing out of poverty. For example, people with criminal records face substantial barriers to employment, housing, education, public assistance, and building good credit. More than 90 percent of employers now use background checks in hiring, and even an arrest without a conviction can prevent an individual from getting a job. The “one strike and you’re out” policy used by public housing authorities makes it difficult for individuals with even decades-old criminal records to obtain housing, and can obstruct family reunification. And in more than half of U.S. states, individuals with felony drug convictions are burdened with a lifetime ban on receiving certain types of public assistance.

In addition to common-sense sentencing reform to ensure that we no longer fill our nation’s prisons with non-violent, low-level offenders, policymakers should explore alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programs for individuals with mental health and substance abuse challenges. We must also remove barriers to employment, housing, education, and public assistance. A decades-old criminal record should not consign an individual to a life of poverty.

10)  Do no harm

The across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration—which took effect in 2013—slashed funding for programs and services that provide vital support to low-income families. Sequestration also cost the American economy as many as 1.6 million jobs between mid-2013 and 2014.  As Congress considers a continuing resolution to fund the federal government past October 1 and avoid another government shutdown, it should reject further cuts to vital programs and services which would once again take us in the wrong direction. Thereafter, Congress should make permanent the improvements made to the EITC and the Child Tax Credit as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which are set to expire in 2017. And it should protect and strengthen vital programs such as Section 8 housing, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, which suffered two rounds of deep cuts in 2013 and 2014.


It is not only possible for America to cut poverty, it is possible for us to cut poverty dramatically.  Between 1959 and 1973, a strong economy, investments in family economic security, and new civil rights protections helped cut the U.S. poverty rate in half. Investments in nutrition assistance have improved educational attainment, earnings, health and income among our nation’s children when they reach adulthood. Expansions of public health insurance have lowered infant mortality rates. And, in more recent history, states that have raised the minimum wage have shown the important role that policy plays in reversing wage stagnation.

There is nothing inevitable about poverty, and there is nothing inevitable about the lack of political will to dramatically reduce it.  Share this article with your friends, and get involved.




A First Step Towards Fixing Child Care

One of the most important things we can do to help working families in poverty reach the middle class is promote access to safe, high-quality child care.  This is certainly the case for families with a female head of household, more than 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to the new poverty data released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Earlier this week, the House took a step in the right direction by passing a bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which is the primary source of funding to help subsidize child care costs for low-income families. Given that the Senate passed a similar bill last spring, it’s likely to see the President’s desk soon. The program—last modified in 1996 as part of welfare reform—is badly in need of updating to reflect that child care is not only a work support, but also plays an important role in preparing children for school.

The bill makes important changes to the child care system, requiring minimum health and safety standards, background checks for providers, regular monitoring visits, and information to parents so they are aware of past violations. Such changes are long overdue: a number of children have died or sustained serious injuries in child care programs because basic health and safety measures were not in place. Child care standards are also embarrassingly low when compared to service industries like beauty salons and even pet grooming. The bill will apply mostly to children in publicly subsidized child care, but is likely to help raise minimum health and safety standards at all child care facilities and prevent taxpayer dollars from supporting unsafe child care.

In addition, the bill provides some stability by allowing children to remain in the program for a year. Under the current system, families often receive child care assistance for a few months at a time because of a small change in income or job schedule, or job loss. These changes will promote continuous access to early childhood programs for children, thereby helping parents sustain employment.

Child care reauthorization also reflects bipartisan support for early childhood programs—a rarity, given today’s gridlock. With just a week left before Congress adjourns for campaign season, the fact that Republicans and Democrats worked together—and across both houses of Congress—signals that early childhood education and promoting safety and quality is a priority for both parties.

Failing to provide a quality early learning environment is a missed opportunity

While this bill marks an important step forward, there is still much work to do in order to provide affordable access to high-quality child care. The current child care subsidy program reaches just one in six eligible children. And while this bill puts minimum health and safety standards in place that will cost money to implement, there is no funding to defray costs for states. That means that improvements will come out of states’ block grant funds and reduce the number of children they can serve.  If we really want to expand the number of children who receive quality child care, we need to increase funding and tie those increases to high-quality programs.

Without additional funding, states also cannot raise the assistance amounts for families. Current levels are typically too low to support access to high-quality programs that effectively prepare children for school. With the average annual cost of a child care center ranging from $4,000 to $16,000 per year and rising, we run the risk of families turning to the unregulated and sometimes illegal child care market, which is of questionable quality.

It’s also time to move the child care conversation past health and safety standards and consider how to help families access high-quality child care—child care that goes beyond safe, custodial care to support children’s development and school readiness.

We often talk about early learning in the context of efforts to expand access to preschool. However, after decades of brain research, we know that children begin learning from birth. For better or worse, children are absorbing their environment and learning from their experiences immediately. Child care programs that are safe but fail to provide nurturing relationships with providers and enriching environments for establishing cognitive and socio-emotional skills will undermine our collective investment in child care assistance and efforts to promote future social mobility.

Given that most children spend a good deal of time in child care programs before they enter kindergarten, failing to provide a quality early learning environment is a missed opportunity. Children (and parents) don’t care if a program is called child care, Head Start, preschool, or school. To artificially talk about preschool and child care in different veins at the federal policy level is a disservice to the 12 million children who spend much of their days in child care programs. It’s also a disservice to families that would like to attend programs like state preschool and Head Start, but have work schedules that don’t allow for part-day early childhood programs.

Hopefully we’ll get another opportunity to reauthorize CCDBG before another 18 years passes. And next time around, we’ll be ready to have a discussion about how federal funds can support early learning and working families in high-quality child care programs.



Senior Poverty: Now You Know

If you listened only to the cable news debates on the future of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, you’d never know. If you read only about the policy proposals to cut these valuable programs, you’d never know. Even if you followed the media coverage of the new U.S. Census Bureau data on poverty released this week, you’d never know that our country is facing a serious and growing senior poverty crisis.

A total of 6.4 million people age 65 and over (15 percent of all people 65 and over) are living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Supplemental Poverty Measure. That’s 6.4 million of our mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, and grandfathers who struggle daily to afford food and rent, to access needed health care and long-term services and supports, to remain connected to their families and their communities.

Older women of color are especially impacted by poverty. Twice as many women as men live in poverty and the numbers of women living in extreme poverty has increased by 20 percent since 2011.  Under the official poverty rate (which actually undercounts poverty’s impact on the nation’s seniors), over 20 percent of black and Hispanic older women live in poverty.

As has been widely reported, the demographics of our country are changing.  Every day 10,000 people in America turn 65.  By 2030 there will be 72 million seniors living in America.  If the current poverty rate of 15 percent among this group holds, there will be more than 11 million seniors living in poverty just 16 years from now.

Unfortunately, in the future, poverty rates among seniors may actually be higher for a number of reasons.

If you want to live in a society in which people can age in dignity let’s start talking about senior poverty.

A Changed Economy

In the last 30 years, wages have stagnated.  Saving has become more difficult for working Americans.  Company-paid pensions are being phased out for most workers and there is nothing to replace them. The impact of these changes on families and working-age individuals is serious and it will only increase as they reach retirement.  Also, having a lower-income during working years means a decreased ability to save and, ultimately, less support and fewer resources later in life.

An Economic Recovery That Didn’t Reach Many

The recent recession created an additional set of problems for seniors and near seniors. For example, because of the housing crisis, many people aged 50 to 65 lost equity in their homes. People in this age group also are among the most likely to have lost a job and had trouble finding a new one. They may have had to live off of whatever savings or retirement funds they had while they were unemployed. Facing economic struggles, they were more likely to take Social Security benefits early, which decreases the value of their benefits over time.

The rising costs of health care present a serious financial challenge to retirees who have little retirement income or savings. Add to that the fact that at least 70 percent of seniors will require some type of long-term services and supports in their lifetime and few have the ability to afford it, and it’s clear that a senior poverty crisis is imminent.

What Kind of Society Do De Want to Live in?

Before Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were adopted, the poverty rate among seniors in our country neared 40 percent.  Returning to those levels of poverty among the oldest members of our communities would be catastrophic for seniors, families, and the economy.

But that’s exactly where we might be headed if we adopt the narrative of cable news shows, budget-cutting lawmakers, and television commercials that suggest American seniors are doing just fine. Instead we must educate our friends, families, colleagues, and policymakers.  We need them to know that a growing number of seniors are facing an economically insecure future—and that cutting programs like Social Security, SSI, Medicare, and Medicaid will only exacerbate the problem.

So now you know: senior poverty is a real and growing problem in America. If you want to live in a society in which people can age in dignity and no senior has to decide between food and the medicine they need, let’s start talking about senior poverty. Help build the momentum necessary to preserve and expand access to health care, long-term services and support, social services, and economic security programs for the millions of low-income seniors who struggle among us.




The Top 3 Things You Need to Know About the 2013 Poverty and Income Data

New data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau show that four years into the economic recovery, there has been some progress in the poverty rate as it fell from 15 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2013, with gains especially strong for children, whose poverty rates fell by nearly 2 percentage points. There was no statistically significant improvement, however, in the number of Americans living in poverty. The share of families struggling on the economic brink also remains elevated, with about one-third of Americans—33.9 percent—just one paycheck, sick child, or broken-down car away from poverty.

Women, people of color, and young workers are among those hardest hit by the recession and the subsequent weak recovery.

These data further confirm what many working families experience on a daily basis—the economy is off-kilter, with gains from economic growth concentrated at the top, and low- and middle-income families continuing to struggle with stagnant incomes and barriers to employment.

In this context, here are three things you need to know about the new data for 2013 and how they affect looming policy choices:

  1. The economic recovery is not translating into income growth more broadly, as a result millions of families are trapped in economic insecurity;
  2. Young workers are still struggling to stay afloat, even though they are more educated than in previous generations;
  3. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, there has been some progress for women and people of color, but persistent racial, ethnic and gender disparities remain.

These trends and their implications are examined below.

Economic growth isn’t being shared

Adjusting for inflation, median family income stayed flat between 2012 and 2013 and remained lower than in both 2007 and 2000. This decline in family income is due in large part to stagnant wage trends.

Given that the vast majority of Americans, including those at the bottom of the income scale, rely on their paychecks and work-related benefits as their primary source of income, wage stagnation is obstructing our ability to improve economic security and cut poverty. As economists at the Economic Policy Institute recently documented, real wage growth has been negative since 2000 for workers in the bottom 30 percent of the wage distribution and basically stagnant for workers in the middle. Only workers in the top 5 percent have seen solid gains.

Flat incomes combined with rising costs have also meant that household balance sheets are in trouble. Flat wages mean that low- and middle-income families must borrow to keep pace with the rising costs of basic goods and needs such as child care and health care. This leaves families more vulnerable to economic shocks, which can send them spiraling below the poverty line. Moreover, as Figure 1a shows, increasing income inequality has exacerbated the increase in wealth inequality, with families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution experiencing particularly large declines in net wealth between 2001 and 2013.


Absent policy action, these trends are likely to continue. In August 2014, low-wage industries such as food services, retail, long-term care, home health care, and temporary help comprised 37 percent of new jobs in the private sector. Fortunately, there is evidence that establishing and strengthening basic labor standards is part of the solution. A recent Economic Policy Institute analysis showed that in the past year, real hourly wages declined for all workers except those in the bottom 10 percent of the wage distribution, with workers in states that raised their minimum wages accounting for the increase. This underscores that public policy—and specifically, minimum-wage increases—have an important role to play in combating wage stagnation.

As the economy slowly recovers, improving job quality and boosting wages must be a central strategy to ensure that the gains of economic growth reach struggling families.

Young workers are still struggling to stay afloat, despite more education than previous generations

While children experienced significant declines in their poverty rates in 2013, these gains were less dramatic for youth transitioning to adulthood. According to the new Census data, 19.4 percent of people ages 18 to 24 had incomes below the poverty level last year, and young adults ages 25 to 34 did not see an improvement in their poverty rates, which were stuck at 15.8 percent in 2013. High poverty for these groups is particularly striking given their education levels. Young people today are much more educated than their counterparts 50 years ago; yet 18- to 34-years-olds today face higher poverty rates than people of the same ages and educational levels did 50 years ago. Figure 2a charts poverty trends for 25- to 34-year-olds by education level between 1968 and 2013. It shows, for example, that even poverty rates for young people with college degrees or more were about twice as high in 2013 as in 1968.


While some of this increase is due to continued high unemployment, there has also been a clear long-term trend toward higher poverty rates for young people at all levels of education. The vast majority of young people living in poverty today have a high school diploma or more, and more than one-third have some postsecondary education, including 14.5 percent with a bachelor’s degree or higher.  (See Figure 2b.)

Higher education is still a key pathway towards economic security, making it possible for millions of Americans to join the middle class. As Figure 2a shows, the more education one has, the less likely he or she is to be poor, with workers who have at least a four-year college degree experiencing the lowest poverty rates.


The high poverty rates of young people carry long-term consequences. Researchers have found that college graduates who started their careers during recessions earned lower wages over the next 15 years compared to college graduates who entered the workforce in a better economy.

Improving the mobility and opportunities of young workers will require improving job quality. This can be done by raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, adjusting it annually to keep pace with the costs of living, and enabling young, childless workers to access the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); providing more avenues for young people to access employment—for example, through expanding apprenticeships; and addressing their crushing levels of student debt through refinancing options.

Despite some progress for women and people of color, persistent disparities remain 50 years after the Civil Rights Act

The poverty rate is too high across the board, but certain groups face much higher risks of poverty and economic insecurity than others. These include women and people of color.

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made in cutting poverty, particularly for African Americans. From 1966 to 2013, the share of the private sector workforce comprised of people of color rose from 11.2 percent to 29.7 percent, and women’s share grew from 31.2 percent to 48.2 percent. As Figure 3 shows, black poverty rates fell from 55 percent in 1959 to 27.2 percent in 2013, due partly to greater civil rights protections and opportunities in the labor market. And Latinos were the only racial or ethnic group to see a statistically significant decline in their poverty rate in 2013.

That said, Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans are still significantly more likely to live below the poverty line than white non-Latinos. People of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods and places with very high poverty rates, often for reasons related to systemic discrimination; to face employment discrimination; and to bear the brunt of policies that have led to mass incarceration. As with young people, their poverty rates remain relatively high despite considerable educational advancement. For example, in 1965, only one-third of working-age African Americans had a high school diploma or additional education; today, nearly 90 percent do. In short, there is still plenty of work to do to ensure equal opportunity.


The story is more mixed for women. As Figure 3b shows, while elderly women’s poverty rates dropped from 32 percent in 1966 to 11.6 percent in 2013—a testament to Social Security and other federal policies’ effectiveness—the poverty rate for non-elderly women remains elevated. While the poverty gap between non-elderly men and women has narrowed some over time, this has more to do with the deteriorating economic positions of many men than with improvements for women.


For women, basic labor standards and the workplace environment have not caught up to the reality of their central role in the labor market. The United States is the only developed country with no paid family and medical leave and no paid sick days, which forces workers to make impossible choices between work and family responsibilities. The lack of these family-friendly policies is an important factor of the persistent gender wage gap, as well as making it more difficult for families to escape poverty.

These disparities for women and people of color also affect our overall economy. By 2042, people of color will make up the majority of our workforce. Allowing racial and ethnic disparities to linger now will undercut our economic competitiveness in the future. Similarly, if we close the gender wage gap, we can cut the poverty rate of working women and their families in half and add nearly half a trillion dollars to our gross domestic product.


While the past decade of economic growth has left low- and middle-income Americans behind, there are policy solutions that can reverse these trends. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 and indexing to inflation would lift 4.6 million people out of poverty; expanding the EITC for childless adults and lowering its eligibility age would allow more young workers to achieve economic stability; and policies such as paid family and medical leave and paid sick days, investments in child care and early education, and criminal justice reform would help close persistent racial, ethnic, and gender disparities while improving our economy.

Our nation cannot afford another year of stagnation. These data should serve as a wake-up call that policy action is needed to provide greater economic stability and opportunity for all Americans.





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.