Monday, March 30, 2009

Kennedy Serve America Act

Full disclosure. I currently run, and years ago was a member in, a program that will benefit from the passage and pending signing of the Kennedy Serve America Act. I am biased.

If you don’t know, the intent of the Kennedy Serve America Act is to increase participation in service activities by making them more attractive and accessible. Among other things, the Act more than triples the size of the AmeriCorps Program; increases from $4,725 to $5,350 the educational award AmeriCorps members can receive after completing their year; provides incentives for middle and high school students to engage in service and authorizes institutions of higher education to be eligible for grants to encourage students to participate in service activities; and expands eligibility for the Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent programs. All steps that are long overdue. However, this is not enough

With all of the incentives that are built into the Act, it does not go nearly far enough to make these opportunities accessible to low-income and working class folks. Members in the VISTA Program, the only AmeriCorps program dedicated solely to alleviating poverty, serving in New York City only receive a living allowance of $13,548 for the year. Before taxes. Let me say that again in case you missed it. VISTAs serving in New York City, receive less than $15,000 as a living allowance before taxes. On this allowance, most Members are expected to cover their housing and associated utility costs (a few sponsoring agencies have housing to offer their Members), feed themselves (more on this below), and cover any other bills they may have with the exception of student loans which can be put into deferment. To put this into a little perspective, when I was a VISTA several years ago my portion of the rent was $500 and my living allowance was no more than $11,388. My rent then would be just about half of the living allowance VISTAs are getting now.

Due to wording in the legislation authorizing the program regarding their living allowance, Members may not be eligible for food stamps depending on how the agency administering the food stamp program decides to interpret the law. This often varies from case worker to case worker. As an aside, I should note that the food stamp program is no longer the food stamp program, but the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Without the assistance of someone, or several some ones, making significantly more money living on $13,000 in New York City is not easy. It is even less so, if you cannot receive the benefits that you should be entitled to because of a semantic technicality.

Aside from the less tangible benefits of participating in a program like AmeriCorps, completing Members have the option of selecting one of two awards. There is a cash stipend of $1,200 and the educational award mentioned above. Both of which, like the living allowance, are taxed. Members are only taxed for the portion of their educational award they use in any given year, but that does not change the fact that they are not able to use the full amount without penalty.

Reading through this, you may come to the conclusion that I think the Kennedy Serve America Act is the worst thing to be signed into law since TARP. You would be wrong. This is a great first step, but that’s all it should be seen as. This should be the beginning, not the end of the conversation about giving a greater priority to service in this country, about making sure that everyone has the ability to make the choice to serve, and about having choices in how to serve. The armed forces shouldn’t be the only financially attractive and/or feasible service option for poor and working class folks interested in giving back and picking up professional skills in a structured environment. Where should the conversation go from here? There are already efforts underway to make the education award non-taxable. Efforts should also be made to make the living allowance non-taxable, particularly if it is to remain at the level it currently is. There should be clarification regarding the eligibility of Members for food stamps. These steps would go a long way towards opening up and diversifying the pool of applicants and making sure that everyone has the opportunity to serve.

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