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The local impact of a national public service bill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2009 - When I first read about legislation gaining steam in Congress that would greatly expand national service programs, my inclination was to find out how the St. Louis region stood to benefit. The result wasn’t quite what I expected.

The most striking part of this bill, carrying the name of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and now awaiting signature from President Barack Obama, was the proposed tripling of AmeriCorps. The program now has 75,000 slots and several projects based here. The legislation calls for 250,000 annual participants by 2017. In the fine print it says that 13,000 positions would be added throughout the country in 2010.

The logical question, then, was how many more people would be assigned to well-established tutoring and emergency response programs that are based here. Turns out, not any, necessarily. As I reported this week, AmeriCorps St. Louis, a nonprofit that supports some of these local projects, is proposing to start a new program rather than expand current ones.

This new program would send dozens of computer-savvy AmeriCorps members into job centers (unofficially called unemployment offices) across the state to help people looking for jobs better navigate online. The proposal has to first get the approval of the Missouri Community Service Commission, which should have its decision this month.

Young people have a stake in both the legislation and the proposed job center program. Kathleen Becherer, the AmeriCorps St. Louis program director, told me that most participants based here are in their 20s. Interestingly, she said about 80 percent of people working on the projects they sponsor aren't from this area.

Sandy Scott, a spokesman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the umbrella group that oversees the service programs, said the vast majority of AmeriCorps members nationwide are between 18 and 26. There’s also a high probability that the program’s National Civilian Community Corps, a residential program for people 18-to-24, could expand as a result of this bill.  

AmeriCorps is seeing a major boost in applications, which is hardly surprising given the state of the job market and the passion that many young people have about community service. The program nationally received nearly 10,000 online applications in February, compared to roughly 3,200 last February. About twice as many people have applied to the AmeriCorps St. Louis program compared to this time last spring.

Also noteworthy is that the bill calls for an increase in the AmeriCorps Education Award that members get after finishing their term of service. The money, which can be used toward tuition or paying back student loans, would jump from $4,725 to the Pell Grant amount of $5,350. That's a substantial change given the fact that only some of AmeriCorps' members receive what the program calls "a modest living allowance."

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