The White House last month proposed its first federal budget, which would cut programs for the nation’s poor and vulnerable. The Trump administration has suggested that such initiatives waste money and create too much dependence on the government.
Among the reductions in services, there is one particular measure that signals a troubling shift in priorities: The budget proposes to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which runs the AmeriCorps program, and to provide funding only for the corporation’s orderly shutdown.
The administration’s perspective is clear and pointed. “Funding community service and subsidizing the operation of nonprofit organizations is outside the role of the Federal Government,” the budget states. “To the extent these activities have value, they should be supported by the nonprofit and private sectors and not with Federal subsidies provided through the complex Federal grant structure run by CNCS.”
As cost-conscious leaders of Fortune 500 companies, we have to disagree. We know a good deal when we see one, and the CNCS is a good deal. This is why we’ve donated to AmeriCorps programs such as College Possible.
While funding for the CNCS represents a fraction of federal spending (less than .02% in previous years), its demise would deeply harm hundreds of thousands of Americans. AmeriCorps, for example, mobilizes more than 80,000 Americans each year to serve local communities through nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and faith-based groups. The dollar payback to each AmeriCorps member is small—a simple living allowance and, following the successful completion of a year of service, an education award of about $5,800 to apply toward post-secondary education or student loans.
Despite the modest cost, the contributions of AmeriCorps are significant. It provides our communities with a range of indispensable services, including mentoring students, supporting veterans and military families, and aiding disaster response and recovery. These programs generate a return on investment that any business would envy. According to a recent Columbia University study, each $1 invested in national service programs such as AmeriCorps returns nearly $4 in the form of higher earnings, greater output, and other benefits.
In Minnesota, where our companies are headquartered, we have had a number of opportunities to observe the proven benefits of national service programs. College Possible, a national nonprofit chartered in Minnesota, fields young AmeriCorps service members to provide intensive support for low-income students beginning their junior year of high school. They continue to furnish that counseling until those students earn a college degree—that’s six or more years of continuous guidance from a peer-like mentor.
Because of College Possible, 98% of these students earn admission to college, and they are four times more likely to graduate than their low-income peers are. This 17-year-old program—which has displayed positive results in a Harvard randomized controlled trial—has been replicated in six locations across the U.S., and now serves nearly 30,000 students a year.
Another program, Reading Corps, is changing academic outcomes for thousands of students at the very beginning of their schooling. From age three to grade three, it combines the power of national service with literacy science to help struggling learners transform into confident students. Reading Corps tutoring produced significantly higher literacy levels, even among students at higher risk of academic failure. The program has been replicated—in 12 states and Washington, D.C.—and now serves more than 40,000 students annually.
These national service programs provide exceptional value for the dollar, and win on any cost-benefit analysis. Last fiscal year, organizations supported by the CNCS raised $1.26 billion in private resources from businesses, foundations, and other sources—exceeding CNCS’s federal appropriation and fostering lasting and impactful public-private collaboration.
AmeriCorps has enjoyed bipartisan support since its inception under President George H.W. Bush, and it has been supported and expanded by every president since. AmeriCorps is also perceived highly favorably by voters regardless of political affiliation, with 83% of voters and 78% of Republicans strongly supporting investing their tax dollars in national service.
That’s why we’re calling on Congress to preserve funding for national service programs such as AmeriCorps. The CNCS and the programs it supports have broad support across party lines. Better yet, they prepare people for a competitive job market; they make our communities stronger, safer, and more prosperous; and they bring us together in the unselfish spirit of service. And that’s something that has no price.
David MacLennan is chairman and CEO of Cargill. John Wiehoff is president and CEO of C.H. Robinson Worldwide. Doug Baker is chairman and CEO of Ecolab. Chris Policinski is president and CEO of Land O’ Lakes.