State and local governments are leading the way on service programs

Backpackers hiking through national park

Investing in educational and career opportunities for young adults is a smart bet on the future. And that is exactly what many states, cities, and counties are doing with American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) funds.

More specifically, they are directing portions of the $350 billion in ARP’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to create or expand service and conservation corps. In corps programs (also referred to as service or national service programs), members serve their community for defined periods of time, working on projects that provide clear societal value, such as building affordable housing, tutoring K-12 students, supporting public health efforts, aiding disaster response and recovery, and contributing to climate resiliency. In return, corps members earn a modest living allowance, gain valuable work experience, build skills, and, in some cases, receive a small educational scholarship. National service programs can offer a structured and supportive pathway into the labor market and postsecondary education, which is especially valuable for young people who otherwise might flounder. And they offer a solid return on investment: An analysis of AmeriCorps identified a cost-benefit ratio of 17.3 to 1. For every $1 in federal funds, the return to society, program members, and the government is $17.30.

New or expanded corps initiatives supported by ARP come in multiple shapes and sizes, reflecting the diversity and creativity of state and local governments in meaningfully addressing local needs and priorities. Many are building off of successful service programs and civic infrastructure by coordinating with and receiving resources from AmeriCorps, the federal agency that funds and organizes national service opportunities. They are also partnering with the state service commissions that support AmeriCorps programs at the state and local level.

Reflecting the urgency of the climate crisis and momentum generated the proposed Civilian Climate Corps in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better framework, the initiatives show a heavy focus on climate resiliency and mitigation. The benefits of climate resilience work may not be as immediately obvious as tutoring or building affordable housing, but such initiatives can directly benefit people and property in rural, suburban, and urban areas alike. For instance, building green infrastructure through landscaping or installing permeable surfaces reduces stormwater runoff after heavy rains, which in turn reduces flash floods and sewage overflows. Weatherizing homes—adding insulation or energy-efficient appliances, for example—reduces both energy consumption and energy bills.

State and local governments are well positioned to advance the field. The proposed Civilian Climate Corps and the rest of the Build Back Better agenda is stalled in the U.S. Senate, meaning that a historic federal investment in conservation and resilience service-year programming is still in question. However, the federal dollars available to state and local governments via ARP provide a chance to jump-start these opportunities to support young adults and improve community resilience.

Below are some examples of how state and local governments are using ARP’s fiscal recovery funds to support service programs. The list focuses on climate-oriented corps programs, but there are also ARP-funded service programs focused on community needs such as promoting literacy and stemming learning loss among K-12 students.

  • The city council of Austin, Texas passed a resolution in May 2020 supporting a local conservation corps modeled after the federal Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. The city subsequently directed $1.9 million of its ARP dollars to create the Austin Civilian Conservation Corps, relying on organizations such as American YouthWorks—who operate the existing Texas Conservation Corps—to help implement the program.
  • The city of San Jose, Calif. funneled more than $10 million of ARP funding to a new Resilience Corps, which puts young people to work responding to the pandemic on multiple fronts: assisting with food bank operations, tutoring K-12 students, and supporting environmental resilience. Similar to Austin, an existing local service program (the San Jose Conservation Corps) is carrying out much of the work, with the exception of the tutoring program, which is managed by the public library system.
  • Building on several years of hearings and planning, Boston used $3 million in ARP funding to seed a green jobs initiative for youth. City leaders looked to a Philadelphia program, PowerCorpsPHL, as a model for offering career-connected education and paid work experiences in fields related to environmental sustainability.
  • Hawaii directed up to $5 million in ARP funds to create a Green Job Youth Corps, and Maine allocated more than $3 million for clean energy workforce development, designating a portion to create the Maine Climate Corps.

The AmeriCorps agency also received an additional $1 billion in ARP funding. Among other things, the agency is using the money to offer a badly needed increase in the living allowance provided to AmeriCorps members and provide additional funds and flexibility to state service commissions. It also partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish Public Health AmeriCorps, which builds a pipeline for young people to enter public health careers and expands capacity during the pandemic.

Service programs have the flexibility to adapt and meet emergency needs. In the early stages of the pandemic, existing AmeriCorps and conservation corps programs pivoted to address immediate problems: distributing food to people in need; serving as contact tracers; staffing call centers; and setting up beds and triage centers.

Cities and states also stood up new corps programs, making it a priority to hire people whose employment and communities had been disrupted by the pandemic. For example, the state service commission for Washington, Serve Washington, collaborated with the Schultz Family Foundation to launch the WA COVID Response Corps to address increased food insecurity across the state. In Birmingham, Ala., Baltimore, and New Orleans, members of newly created service programs provided community outreach and education, staffed testing centers, conducted contact tracing, and more.

These service programs established earlier in the public health crisis largely focused on relief. But service programs can also support recovery and growth. The pre-pandemic economy left many adults and young people in low-wage jobs or out-of work; if designed properly, corps programs can provide meaningful work, skill-building opportunities, and career pathways—valuable for everyone, but especially for people on the economic margins. Corps programs can also advance community well-being in the long term by directing more people and resources to problems such as educational inequities, public health gaps, and climate change. The innovative place-based approach of the Flint National Service Accelerator offers a model: For the past decade, it has dramatically increased the number of AmeriCorps members in Flint, Mich. and engaged them in addressing community-identified priorities.

Not all service programs focus on hiring young adults, although that is the most common program model. Others, particularly newer ones developed since the emergence of COVID-19, prioritize hiring people whose lives have been disrupted by the pandemic or who are most proximate to the problems the program is addressing. Both approaches typically prioritize equity, ensuring that recruitment, hiring, training, and activities advance opportunities for people and places that have economically struggled.

There is no shortage of work to be done, nor is there a shortage of potential corps members. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on secondary and postsecondary education, leaving millions of young adults without clear plans or structure. College enrollment has dropped substantially, especially at community colleges. A survey of recent high school graduates suggests that many young adults feel overwhelming levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and confusion about their future. Service programs offer a proven way to reach and engage with young people and empower them through service.

State and local governments should not wait for the federal government to boost funding for national service. Instead, they should use the flexible funds from the American Rescue Plan already available to them. By collaborating with the social, philanthropic, and private sectors, governments can use this momentum to build lasting solutions for young people and communities.

Note: Most of the above examples are drawn from two sources: the Local Government ARPA Investment Tracker developed jointly by Brookings Metro, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties; and the ARPA State Fiscal Recovery Fund Allocations dashboard, developed by the National Conference of State Legislatures.