Fighting Poverty with Passion
Ever wonder if the AmeriCorps VISTA program (or anotherAmeriCorps program) is beneficial to society? Well, I certainly have and for my blog this month I decided to take a look for myself.
The Congressional Budget Justification for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) describes the roles of VISTAs as follows:
“AmeriCorps VISTA will continue to direct resources to projects that provide interventions that demonstrate promise in providing pre-K readiness and K-12 success, safe and affordable housing, access to food and health care, and support to veterans and their families.”
Unsurprisingly, VISTAs are focused on some of today’s eminent challenges so it’s good to know that the resources for the AmeriCorps VISTA program are being allocated to the sectors of most need. How much are these resources you ask? For the 2014 FY, just a little over $92 million was spent mostly on the living stipends, health care, and education awards for around 7,700 VISTAs. The budget for all of the AmeriCorps programs combined is around $450 million. In comparison to the entire federal budget, this is pennies but nonetheless it’s a big chunk of change. Several studies have looked at the return on investment AmeriCorps programs have provided. AmeriCorps programs provide benefits to society, the member, and the site organization at which the member volunteers. Let’s take a look at each.
There is a large amount of data on all the CNCS programs as each has been audited and evaluated several times but for this section I’ll just focus on AmeriCorps VISTA.
In 2013 7,211 VISTAs served in more than 1200 communities and organizations across the country. So the breadth of the program is pretty large but that doesn’t necessarily prove it’s effective. What does seem to prove that notion, however, is that members raised more than $160 million in cash and in kind resources in support of anti-poverty programs; this nearly is double the budget of the program.
On top of that VISTAs have engaged nearly 1.4 million community volunteers and if we go by the value of volunteer work determined by the Independent Sector (a coalition group representing funders and grant seekers in the nonprofit field) of $22.55/hr we see that each volunteer would only need to serve 3 hours (3hr x $22.55 x 1.4 million=$94.7 million) to “pay” for the VISTA who recruited them. Volunteers will likely, on average, serve more than just three hours so the benefit of volunteer recruitment by VISTAs is much larger.
Besides raising millions of dollars in donations and recruiting millions of volunteers, VISTAs also benefit society by reducing welfare costs and increasing the future earnings of individuals affected by anti-poverty programs.
Studies seem to back up the idea of the profound impact of VISTAs as two separate ones determined a 2.27 and 1.4 ROI, respectively. A meta-study of 73 national AmeriCorps programs put a total ROI at 1.61.
However, we cannot solely value the financial returns of VISTAs because some of the ways we impact the community don’t necessarily show themselves in the numbers. For instance, VISTAs often build relationships between communities and organizations, mentor youth and adults alike, and help nonprofits work collaboratively. In short, I think it’s fair to say that AmeriCorps VISTA is working as an anti-poverty program.
Benefits of being an AmeriCorps member
In addition to providing a living stipend and healthcare, AmeriCorps members report receiving valuable experience and fulfillment during their service term.
The most comprehensive survey on member attitudes was done by AmeriCorps Texas. They surveyed the satisfaction of their members in an evaluation in 2010. The responses were resoundingly positive with 72% of Texas AmeriCorps full-time members, who received a stipend or living allowance during their service term, reporting that they felt that their service was very effective.
Further, 92% of Texas AmeriCorps members thought that the AmeriCorps program in which they served provided a unique service to the community, 88% thought they made a difference in at least one person’s life, and 92% thought the organization they lived with provided direct benefits to the community.
Assuming the attitudes of Texas AmeriCorps members can be generalized for the nation, it would appear that serving as an AmeriCorps is a worthwhile experience.
Benefits to the hosting organization
The AmeriCorps Texas study also surveyed program managers of an organization who hosted AmeriCorps members. AmeriCorps members were usually (54% of program managers indicated) used by their organization to serve more people within the community. Even better, 83% of program managers reported that their AmeriCorps programs met or exceeded their goals.
Other responses are included in the charts below.
All in all, it looks like AmeriCorps programs are making a tangible difference in society. With a return on investment that would make any Wall Street broker jealous, AmeriCorps programs are clearly a poverty-fighting machine. However, improvement is always welcomed, and I think with more oversight and organization, AmeriCorps programs will continue to fight poverty more effectively.