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Federal cuts in national service programs could be costly in California

At stake is more than $100 million for groups that build affordable homes, mentor youth, care for the elderly, teach in under-resourced schools and provide other services to some of California's neediest families.

April 03, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis, Times Staff Writer
  • AmeriCorps crew leader Lisbeth Mora helps Habitat for Humanity refurbish a house.
AmeriCorps crew leader Lisbeth Mora helps Habitat for Humanity refurbish… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

At a Lynwood construction site, Lisbeth Mora applies a fresh coat of paint to a house that has stood empty for more than a year. It is the second home the 23-year-old architecture graduate has helped rehabilitate for Habitat for Humanity, which provides housing for low-income families.

At the Public Counsel Law Center in Koreatown, Stacy Garrick Zimmerman, 33, is providing free legal help to veterans struggling to obtain disability benefits. She has won more than $100,000 in compensation for her clients in about a year.

Mora and Zimmerman are among the 8,500 AmeriCorps members expected to serve at California charitable community and faith-based groups, schools and other sites this year.

Efforts by House Republicans to eliminate AmeriCorps and other national service programs to help lower the federal budget are causing alarm among the state's nonprofit organizations. At stake is more than $100 million in federal funding for groups that build affordable homes, mentor youth, care for the elderly, teach in under-resourced schools and provide other services to some of California's neediest families.

"This is potentially a devastating disaster, a civic tsunami," said Karen Baker, state Cabinet secretary for service and volunteering.

AmeriCorps, known as the domestic Peace Corps, is one of many programs targeted for cuts by the House of Representatives' new Republican majority, which campaigned on a promise to reduce red ink in Washington. The House's conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, takes issue with the living stipends and education awards offered to AmeriCorps members.

"With the federal budget going $4.3 trillion — plus interest — into the red in just the last three years, paying people to 'volunteer' is not an appropriate use of taxpayer money," caucus spokesman Brian Straessle wrote in an email.

The House spending bill approved in February cuts $1.15 billion for the Corp. for National and Community Service, effectively shutting down the federal agency that operates AmeriCorps. Other programs that would be eliminated include Senior Corps, which engages about 29,000 Californians age 55 and older in community service, and Learn and Serve America, which supports service projects for about 140,000 California students.

"It's simply irresponsible to keep borrowing money for programs that we can no longer afford as a nation — no matter how well intentioned," Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs) said in an email statement.

The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected the bill that Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said breaks "a long tradition of bipartisan support for service in this country."

A more modest budget-cutting bill proposed by Senate Democrats would have continued to fund the corporation and its programs at 2010 levels until the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. But that too was rejected. Fearing that more drastic cuts could be part of a compromise to avert a federal government shutdown, a national coalition of nonprofits has been trying to show members of Congress what these programs do in their states.

"It's not really a matter of a bunch of government bureaucrats running around in T-shirts," said AnnMaura Connolly, who heads the Save Service in America campaign. "These are ordinary Americans who are rolling up their sleeves and diving in to really help solve problems locally."

As state and local governments cut services, Connolly said, it is increasingly falling to nonprofits to help meet community needs. Programs like AmeriCorps help pay for workers who are needed to help fill the gap, she said. At the same time, she said, service programs help participants acquire skills and experience in a tough job market.

The corporation supports the work of more than 5 million people nationwide. Many of them serve full time, which few can afford to do without compensation, Connolly said.

Zimmerman has more than $100,000 in student loans to pay back. She said public interest law would not have been an option for her without the more than $10,000 in education awards she can earn over two years as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps legal fellow.

Beneficiaries of corporation funding say the federal dollars help them leverage private, state and local government contributions as well as additional volunteers.

Officials at Habitat for Humanity said the 77 AmeriCorps members who served at the group's 13 California affiliates last fiscal year led more than 24,000 volunteers, raised nearly $1.3 million in funds and building materials and helped build 144 homes. Mora manages up to 15 volunteers, freeing her supervisor to check in on two other job sites in Lynwood.

Habitat's capacity to build homes would be "reduced significantly if the AmeriCorps program went away," said Erin Rank, who heads the group's Greater Los Angeles affiliate. Each member is "a dedicated, full-time volunteer that works with us five days a week and learns how to build houses and quickly learns how to teach others how to do the same," she said.

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