In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson began the Federal program Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) for young Americans to be the foot soldiers of the War on Poverty. VISTA was conceptualized as a domestic Peace Corps (which is an insidious tool of American imperialism itself). It eventually became housed in the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) in 1994, when the program was merged with Bill Clinton’s own national service program, AmeriCorps. All AmeriCorps members are committed to working for a nonprofit organization, typically for one calendar year. Corps members receive a small living stipend during our national service term, which is typically 105-110% of the Federal poverty line for the area in which they serve. That means that they are receiving the equivalent of a Social Security Income (SSI) or Social Security-Disability Income payment each month, while working 40+ hours per week.
Cue that Onion article.
The majority of Corps members receive some kind of small end-of-service stipend, either a cash award (only for VISTAs) or an education award to be used for qualifying Federal loans or higher education programs. Members may also be eligible to put qualifying Federal loans into forbearance during their term of service, and the education award will be increased to cover the interest that accrues through forbearance.
The living, cash, and education stipends are all taxable, of course. So, don’t spend all of it all at once.
You may have guessed by now, if you didn’t already know, that I am a current AmeriCorps member as well as an alumna. I served for one year in an AmeriCorps State program, where I worked as the program manager for an after-school program and summer camp for teenagers living at the YWCA. Currently I am approaching the end of my second term of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA, working in volunteer resources for a small food justice nonprofit. Because I am a glutton for punishment, I am looking down the barrel of my third year of National Service (you can just hear the capitals when people say this out loud) as a VISTA Leader, which amounts to a slight pay increase and a doubled cash stipend.
Throughout my career as an AmeriCorps member, I have worked to benefit individuals and families who were recipients of Federal aid programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Asssistance Program), WIC (Women, Infants and Children), Section 8 (housing vouchers), Cash Assistance, and Medicaid, while finding myself in a position to qualify and receive some of those benefits myself. It’s not as easy to become enrolled in these programs as the common myth would have you believe. Poverty itself is a full-time job.
Fifty years after Johnson declared War on Poverty in 1964, refugees still receive aid through food, housing, and medical subsidy programs. I doubt that he would have guessed that fifty years later, his foot soldiers would as well.
Because I am a VISTA, I am bound by the Hatch Act even though I am technically a “volunteer” and not an employee (which is a laughable distinction). Being an AmeriCorps member and a member of the “voluntariat” or a “volumployee” (or whatever other portmanteau) is a strange political space to occupy as a Marxist. I’m not supposed to participate in partisan politics while representing AmeriCorps. I cannot support a political candidate, particularly from one of the two major political parties. I cannot run for office. That doesn’t make a difference to me, because my Marxist political organization does not run candidates and we’re unlikely to, for quite a while. I cannot represent VISTA in labor organizing, nor can I organize with my other Corps members. I cannot lobby for support of AmeriCorps, SNAP, or other programs. I cannot advocate for abortion (though when I worked for the YWCA, my insurance could cover an early term one). And so on.
I must apply for Medicaid to be in compliance with the Affordable Care Act. I must apply for SNAP in order to afford my groceries. But I can’t tell my legislators why, as a currently serving AmeriCorps member, why I need these programs and why I believe that others should have access to them as well.
I get to say that I chose to do AmeriCorps, I “chose” to live in poverty, and with more than an ounce of white guilt I get to use the phrase “poverty tourism.” But I get to get out of this at some point.
I get to get out of poverty.
But what choice did I really have, when after graduating from college, I applied for over 100 positions and only heard back from the AmeriCorps programs? When I received offers, they were only for AmeriCorps. When I left National Service to find gainful full-time employment, I couldn’t.
But I don’t know if I would make another choice, even if I had the chance.
My experiences with AmeriCorps have shaped many of my political beliefs. AmeriCorps has done more to make me a Marxist than four years of a private liberal arts college education ever could, and you can take that straight to the pundits on Faux News. It doesn’t take much to imagine that thrusting bright, passionate, educated young people into poverty would make them question capitalism, make them weary of the 40-hr workweek, and ultimately make them mad enough to do something about it. That’s why we’re not allowed to organize our own union or participate in labor organizing outside of our service. If we could, you better believe that we would.
Of course, the shtick is that AmeriCorps members earn poverty wages so they can “better understand” those they are serving (there’s that “poverty tourism” thing again), but it’s really a way of coaxing talented, educated, and experienced people into “doing what they love” for less money. Creating surplus value for the sheer pleasure of working, that’s the American way! But does it really “feel like work” if you really “enjoy” what you’re doing, or if it’s a calling?
Why do we have to sacrifice our standard of living in order to help people or feel good about our jobs? When did that become an expectation? Why?
I could go on, but I’d probably actually violate the Hatch Act — or give the U.S. Congress more reason to make an amendment to it (though they can’t be bothered to create an act that would align our health coverage program with the ACA’s new standards…). I do love AmeriCorps. I am proud of my service. But as a Marxist, I am critical of its implications. This won’t be the last time you’ll hear about it, either.