Small stipends for AmeriCorps volunteers take big shutdown hit

Regina Best, a U.S. Air Force veteran and AmeriCorps volunteer from Dallas, Texas, helps construct Habitat for Humanity homes at the base of the Washington Monument on the National Mall in June.

Story highlights

  • Shutdown will reduce checks for AmeriCorps volunteers by more than a third
  • AmeriCorps volunteer on cut: "It means that some real decisions have to be made"
  • Volunteers aren't allowed to take part-time jobs and lose scholarship if they leave program
Thousands of AmeriCorps volunteers across the country felt the effects of the government shutdown on Friday as their modest living allowances were reduced by more than a third due to a lack of funding.
"I did not know until this week what my stipend would look like and then I found out it was going to be 65% of what I generally would expect," said Jeffery Kearney, 30, a volunteer in Washington.
The shortage affects more than 2,000 participants in the AmeriCorps VISTA program who make a year-long commitment to work at nonprofit organizations or public agencies on projects to fight poverty.
The VISTA living allowance is based on the federal poverty level, and helps volunteers pay for basic living expenses during their service, meaning even a minor reduction can force them to make some tough decisions.
"It means that some real decisions have to be made," said Kearney, whose $300 pay check was cut to approximately $200 on Friday. "It literally means either a cell phone payment or a student loan payment."
Kearney and his wife moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2010 after receiving master's degrees at the University of Arkansas. Combined the couple has more than $200,000 in student loans and count on Kearney's paycheck to help keep up with their payments.
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Founded by John F. Kennedy in 1965 as Volunteers in Service to America, today VISTA participants receive a living allowance every two weeks, and at the end of their service they're eligible for a scholarship, which in 2012 was worth $5,500.
"They've been asked to continue to serve, they're getting a partial payment this month, they don't know what's going to happen next month, so their future's really uncertain," said Ben Duda, executive director of AmeriCorps Alums. "We were talking to someone on Twitter who said it was literally a choice of do I pay rent or do I buy groceries."
The paycheck volunteers received on Friday represents compensation for the last pay period in September, but nothing for the first days of October.
Under AmeriCorps rules, volunteers are prohibited from getting a second job to help bring in extra money. If they drop out of the program, they become ineligible for the year-end scholarship.
In Kearney's case, he and his wife are counting on that scholarship to help cover student loan costs while he looks for a job next fall.
Zach Maurin, executive director of Service Nation, a group that advocates on behalf of organizations like AmeriCorps, said, "Part of the culture of the organization is that to best understand people in poverty you have to live in poverty," said.
AmeriCorps and the VISTA program are both part of the Corporation for National and Community Service. In the agency's contingency plan posted before the shutdown, it outlines that for "non-grant, non-cost share VISTAs, the living allowance will continue to accrue but not be paid until funding is restored."
There's also a new class of volunteers waiting to begin their assignments whose start date may be pushed back if the government isn't reopened soon.
"What makes this so troubling is you've got a group of people working on behalf of community members in poverty," said Maurin. "When these members aren't on the job or can't begin their term of service you have people they're trying to help who are already on the brink of some dire circumstances. So when this level of support goes away it's really disastrous."
In the event that the government shutdown continues, Duda and his fellow alumni are exploring ways to fill the funding gap. They posted a form online to solicit information from volunteers in need and received responses from 30 organizations and more than 300 individuals in the first 30 minutes. In total, they've reached out to150 organizations and more than 640 VISTA volunteers to find out where the need is the greatest.
"Those of us who served in AmeriCorps know what that experience means and what it means to serve your country in national service," Duda said. "And when we see people serving their country faced with these dire circumstances we want to do something about it."
In some cases, local organizations are stepping in to provide assistance to their volunteers, and AmeriCorps Alums is considering soliciting donations or even taking out a private loan to help make volunteers' paychecks whole.
"These are individuals who should be empowered and celebrated for the hard and critical work that they're doing and not be faced with an unnecessary and really dire set of choices to make," Duda said.