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President Obama: Raise the Americorps Living Allowance

Please join me in encouraging Obama and Congress to give Americorps members fair compensation by signing the White House petition.

During his state of the Union Address on January 29th, 2014, President Obama called on members of Congress to follow in the footsteps of several local and state governments to raise the minimum wage to at least $10.10 per hour. To set an example, he stated that he would raise the minimum wage for federal contractors.

If POTUS believes in rewarding work with fair pay, then he should also raise the living allowance for Americorps members. Americorps members do real work that should be compensated accordingly, and they shouldn’t be left behind in the fair wage movement.

My Story

The Americorps website describes the program as one that “engages more than 80,000 Americans at intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, community and faith based groups across the country.” Applicants can choose from hundreds of programs across the country, from providing academic support in DC public schools with City Year, to assisting self represented litigants in the California Court System with Justice Corps, to disaster response with any of the Americorps NCCC programs. Americorps is a popular choice for many who have recently graduated from high school or college, and who are looking for a rewarding experience, money for school, or a way to jump start their career.

I applied to several Americorps programs during my senior year of college at Florida State. I knew that I wanted to work in social justice at a non-profit organization, but that I probably didn’t yet have enough experience to get a job. Moving back home to Central Florida was out of the question, and I wasn’t ready to go to grad school yet.  Americorps seemed like a good way to get experience in nonprofit work while (barely) supporting myself financially. I was accepted to the AIDS United program, which recruits members to work at HIV/AIDS service organizations around the country. I was placed in the Washington, DC location starting in August of 2012, where I did HIV testing and counseling and reproductive health education for youth in a city where HIV rates are among the highest in the nation.

My living allowance for the 11 month program was just over $16,000, before taxes. (During the summer of 2012, Congress decided to cut funding for certain Americorps programs including the AIDS United program, for the 2012-2013 year alone. The DC program coordinators worked hard to raise the money to fund our stipends so that the program could continue. Had the program been funded by Congress for that year, I also would have received over $5,000 towards student loans, health insurance through the program, and I would have been eligible for food stamps.) I knew that this would be very little to live on, especially in one of the most expensive cities in the country. I had been working as an online ESL teacher since early 2012, and I planned on continuing this job after starting the program. Actually, I didn’t have a choice but to keep that second job, and without it I definitely would not have joined this or any other Americorps program.

Many Americorps members are not as lucky as I was. Stipends can vary greatly depending on the program and the part of the country. Many members across the country live on less than $1000 a month, and those in VISTA programs are not permitted to have other jobs. I find it appalling that members are not allowed to find other ways of supporting themselves when living on such small amounts of money.

During my service year, I was constantly stressed out about money. I moved to DC with bills yet to pay–taxes from the previous year, health insurance from my alma mater, moving expenses–and it was a struggle to keep up. I’ll admit that I could have made things slightly easier for myself by finding a cheaper place to live (my rent was $850/month, which is very reasonable for living in the District, but also more than one of my paychecks from my primary job), and I had just started my Invisalign treatment and had to pay out of pocket. Even as I paid off some bills and my expenses decreased, it was still a struggle to get by between my two jobs. I couldn’t afford a bed and mattress until late December, about 5 months into the program. (I didn’t mind so much. I grew up in a low income family so I was used to sleeping on the floor.) Buying a round trip plane ticket to Orlando to visit my family during the year was simply out of the question. Sometimes I would wonder if I had enough money to get a weekly bus pass so I could get to work. I constantly thought about and stressed about money. I would stay up late at night thinking about and staring at numbers that represented how much was coming in and going out, and I would try to reassure myself that everything would be OK, that I could pay my bills, that the winter coat on Ebay for $20 was a good deal and that I should get it, even if that’s all I have in my bank account.

At the end of the service year, knowing that my main source of income would abruptly end, as the program was only 11 months long, I had to become obsessed with finding a new job. I had no money saved up, as saving money was not possible for me on a low income, so finding a job quickly was essential. I was again lucky that I had my ESL job, because otherwise not being able to afford a plane ticket back home, I might have been homeless after my living allowance ran out.

Combined with problems at work and high expectations about moving to DC, stressing about money throughout the year affected my mental health, more than I could ever imagine. I didn’t have a parent’s credit card, nor could I ask them to send me money. I was pretty much on my own financially and otherwise.  I’m not at all saying that more money would have solved all of my problems, but I know that it would have been one less major thing to worry about, and that could have made a big difference. I’m sure of this, because now that I’m lucky enough now to have a different set of two jobs that pay enough, not having to constantly worry about how low my bank account is has taken a heavy weight off my shoulders.

I would have done a second year in the program, as I did grow to enjoy the work, and I have developed an interest in reproductive health education and working with youth. I now realize that doing a second year would have been beneficial for my career, as many similar jobs that I have wanted to apply for require at least 2 years of experience. Even so, the stress of living on such a low stipend is simply not worth it.

Americorps members do real work and deserve real pay.

It seems that the Americorps justifies the low living allowance by calling members “volunteers” and by calling the work “service.” If you are a volunteer doing service for your community, you are simply there because of the generosity of your heart. Your primary reward is knowing that you are doing good, and you should be grateful that the program is generous enough to give you a small stipend and an education award for your time. It may be true that many Americorps members enter their service year to do good for local communities but that does not mean that their idealism and altruism should be exploited. Americorps members are not just looking for a way to give back; often they are looking for a way to make a living. The work that Americorps members do is real work, and it should be compensated as such. During my year, my duties were essential to the HIV prevention department of the organization. I managed a youth peer education program, did HIV testing and counseling, and did presentations and workshops on HIV, reproductive health, and related topics. At first it was difficult being thrown into work that I’ve never done before, but by the end of the year it was clear that I was good at what I did, as I exceeded the deliverables of the grant that was assigned to me. I worked alongside co-workers who were doing very similar tasks, but I was making less than half of what they made per year, simply because my work was seen as voluntary service, and not as legitimate work.

It’s not surprising that some consider the low stipend justifiable, considering that in general, people believe that those of who are working to better our communities deserve to get paid less. Nonprofits are constantly scrutinized for the amount that they spend on “overhead”, and it seems that they will pay their employees as little as possible in order to prove to donors that more money is going to the cause and not in someone’s pocket. In his TED talk about how society views charitable organizations, Dan Pallotta discusses the obsession with minimizing overhead and keeping nonprofit salaries low. “You wanna make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you wanna make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”

Liz Ortel, a former Americorps member and current PhD in Comparative Literature candidate at Louisiana State University argues that “Americorps isn’t really helping improve the general public’s perception of service work” by keeping the living stipends low.  People in the nonprofit field, including Americorps members, do the type of work that many people simply could not handle. Americorps members might counsel someone with suicidal thoughts on a hotline, manage a caseload of homeless inner city youth, tell a client that they are HIV positive and link them to care and case management, or comfort a terminally ill patient during their final hours. Americorps members do real work, important work, and difficult work, and they should be paid accordingly.

After all, they do have bills to pay. Many Americorps members receive food stamps, so that does provide some relief. However, when living just barely above the federal poverty level, sometimes in the most expensive cities in the country, not having to pay for food barely makes a difference.

Liz and her fiancé were both Americorps members with Notre Dame Mission Volunteers in Apopka, FL for the 2012-2013 service year. Liz taught ESL and GED classes at a local community center. They each made $12,100 for the duration of the 11 month program. Living together helped them save on expenses, but other corps members were not so lucky.  “Not everyone in our group found shared housing though, and because the stipend was so low, they had a difficult time finding any apartments that would let them rent.” Things were still tough for Liz and her fiancé. She told me, “let’s just say I don’t think I saved a cent. I can’t imagine having to pay more than 350-400 [for rent] on an $850 monthly stipend [after taxes].” They also had to worry about paying for gas and insurance for their car, plus other monthly expenses. According to her, “If other federal wages are going to increase, it seems wrong to leave Americorps behind.”

Isabelle* served with Reading Partners for the 2012-2013 year, and is now a Teach for America corps member in a major city on the East Coast. Her living allowance for her year in Reading Partners was about $16,000, and she received health insurance and a vision plan, though she chose to stay under her parent’s insurance plan, as many Americorps members do. Isabelle put her monthly expenses, including her car, rent , and utilities, on credit during her service year. “I’m still currently paying off a credit card because of the debt I’m in from finances.” Her living allowance didn’t go very far, “especially after I had a hit and run and I was fucked because I had to pay out of pocket too.That’s stuff that isn’t accounted for.”  She rejects the idea that because Americorps members are “volunteers”, they should not be given proper compensation.

“I worked with 54 students one on one for an entire school year [and] all but 2 not only narrowed but closed their gaps and accelerated their rate of learning. Volunteer? HA.”

I’ve also heard it said several times that Americorps members are paid so little so that they can relate to the low income communities that they are serving. My friend Jason*, who was on my Americorps team and currently works for a mental health advocacy organization, argues, “The point of Americorps is not only to serve, but to experience what it may be like for people who are living at or below the Federal Poverty Line. It was through this experience that I was able to prioritize what was important in my life.” He recognizes that “there is a certain type of privilege that one must have in order to really do this program. I was fortunate enough to have parents who would help me on occasion.”

I don’t believe that Americorps members should get a low living allowance just so they could try to “relate” to the communities they serve. This is not only a terrible justification for underpaid labor, but it is incredibly insulting to those who are actually poor for years or generations at a time. The experience of living in poverty goes so much deeper than not having enough money, and there is absolutely no way that someone from a middle class background who lives on a low stipend for one year will understand what it’s like to live in poverty, especially if they are racially or otherwise privileged, or if they are getting help from family throughout the year, as many Americorps members do.  Truly living in poverty means not having a safety net. It means having wealth and opportunity historically and systematically taken away from you and those who came before you. It means not having the privilege to choose to live on a low income for one year just because you want to experience what a poor person’s life is like. Isabelle, who served with Reading Partners, thinks that an Americorps member does not need a low stipend in order to relate to the community. “There are so many other ways one can relate…by building relationships, communicating, not how much is in your bank account.”

Speaking of the middle class, I suspect that they are more likely to apply for Americorps programs because they come from families that can support them through the year. For someone who comes from a low income family, it does not seem logical to move to an expensive city to take a job that is barely enough to live on when your parents can’t send you money. Therefore, keeping the stipend low excludes people who come from low income backgrounds, who are often people of color and/or members of other marginalized groups, from participating in this program. Americorps can be an important stepping stone in one’s career, and increasing the stipend could give a more diverse group of people the opportunity to gain knowledge and experience that could help them get a decent job later in life.

Low paid or unpaid temporary positions such as Americorps are a part of what the St. Louis based writer Sarah Kendzior calls the prestige economy, in which opportunity and economic mobility are only open to those with prestige: people who are wealthy, who can afford prestigious, expensive degrees, and who can afford to take low paid or unpaid internships, in which they are paid the the prestige of working for the company, which is described as “experience.” Kendzior writes in her op-ed Meritocracy for Sale, that “unpaid internships in policy and human rights send the message that fighting poverty, inequality, and other issues of injustice is something that only rich people should do. Qualities that should be encouraged in society– like empathy and the willingness to stand up for others – are devalued when ordinary people are told that they literally cannot afford to care.”

Yasmin Kenny, a caterer who lives in Tampa, Florida, is one of the many thousands who cannot afford to care. She has roots in community organizing, and occasionally looks into applying for Americorps programs as a way to return to serving her community. Once, she was accepted to an Americorps position where she would have been teaching art. She was ready to commit to the program, “But then my car died,” she told me. “And since it was like 10 miles away…it would have been like 3 hours on a bus both ways.” Having a second job while in the program was out of the question because of the commute, and because the hours for the Americorps position were in the middle of the day. Had the living allowance been higher, Yasmin might have been able to afford to fix her car. When I asked how her career would have been different today had she been in Americorps, she said, “I might actually have a professional non-profit career type job in which I feel fulfilled in my work…not that catering isn’t fulfilling, because I enjoy special events, but in the end, I know it isn’t my calling.  I don’t know what is, necessarily, but this doesn’t feel like it.”

Though Yasmin has never been able to take an unpaid or underpaid position, she said “I know so many people who did and are now making more money than I could dream of today.” She told me that she would gladly take an Americorps position if the living allowances were at least $20,000.

People like Yasmin want to give back to their communities, but with unpaid and low paid positions, a passion for social justice comes at the high price of a low wage. Americorps positions should be open to everyone who wants to make a difference, not just those who can afford to work for less than $13,000 per year.

Is raising the stipend even possible?

If Americorps members were to earn a stipend that is the equivalent of the proposed $10.10 per hour minimum wage, then someone in a 1700 hour 11 month program like myself would make a gross of $17,170. This would be a significant improvement for Liz, who made just over $12,000. Personally, I believe that Congress should raise the minimum stipend to at least $20,000 for 11 month programs, and/or provide supplemental aid for those living in cities with a high cost of living.

Not all Americorps programs have painfully low living allowances. Members of Justice Corps earn just over $20,000 per year, and Teach for America corps members make a similar salary to other teachers in their school district, which could be as much as $51,000 in the District of Columbia.

So what explains the variation in the stipend? Each year, prospective Americorps grantees apply to the Corporation for National and Community Service for grants that would support Americorps members. For one, there are different categories of Americorps grants, and these grants may be awarded in different amounts for each organization. Also, depending on the type of grant, organizations may have to either match a certain percentage of funding from the CNCC, they may have to cover the entire living allowance or salary, or they might not be required to do either. Most programs do have to come up with money in addition to the CNCC funding to support their program. As for TFA corps members, they are compensated by their school districts (except for the education award, which is granted by the government.) So the amount that a member gets paid varies depending on the resources that the host organization has.

The amount of funding that is awarded to grantees is described in terms of the cost per Member Service Year (MSY.) This is the amount of money that is granted per each member who completes 1700 hours during a year of service. For certain grants that will be awarded for the fiscal year 2014, the maximum MSY that can be awarded is $13,000 per service member. Some of this cost may be used for other program costs instead of for the living allowance given to the service member. Even with the variation in the living allowances due to the funding available to grantee organizations, Congress can support raising the living allowance for thousands of Americorps members by providing more funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which can then raise the maximum cost per Member Service Year, so that grantee organizations can better provide an adequate living allowance.

Host organizations can also play their part and raise more money to fund living allowances. Having worked for nonprofits for years, I understand that raising money is not an easy thing to do. However, if making Americorps programs sustainable and effective is a priority, raising the living allowance might be the key to decreasing burnout and turnover. When asked about raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers, White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne told Bloomberg that “higher wages will attract higher-quality workers who are more productive, reduce turnover, which can significantly offset the cost of providing higher wages.” This same logic can be applied to raising the living allowance for Americorps members.

Furthermore, during the 2014 State of the Union address, Obama called the gender pay gap “an embarrassment.” Considering that 73% of Americorps members are women, raising the living stipend would also be a way to narrow the gender pay gap.

*  *  *

Given that funding for the CNCS has been cut within the last few years, and that service programs are not exactly a priority for Congress, all of this may be just a pipe dream.

I would argue that in a time when “making a living” has come to mean just barely surviving, fair compensation for everyone is a dream worth fighting for. Americorps provides an opportunity for people to give back to their communities while making advancements in their careers and providing for themselves. If President Obama is the advocate for fair pay that he claims to be, then making this opportunity more available to everyone by raising the Americorps living allowance should be a priority.

*Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.

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