Huffman seeks more funding for civic service programs
Rep. Jared Huffman has introduced a bill that calls for increased funding for the Peace Corps and similar domestic service programs such as VISTA and AmeriCorps.
The International and National Service Promotion to Ignite Renewed Engagement (INSPIRE) Act would provide a new education grant to Peace Corps volunteers and would increase an existing education grant for domestic service volunteers. The bill would also increase loan forgiveness for volunteer teachers and volunteers in the national health service corps.
“Promoting positive change and social renewal through active citizenship has never been more important than it is in today’s toxic political climate,” Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in a statement. “We must do more to encourage both national and international service and bridge the gap that currently exists between individuals wanting to serve and the opportunities to do so.”
In a release, and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, whose name is also on the bill, said, “America is at its best when its citizens are civically engaged.”
Huffman said, “The INSPIRE Act would empower a half a million dedicated, patriotic individuals to teach in our schools, improve health outcomes in underserved areas like the North Coast of California, conserve our natural resources, and build up our communities.”
The Edward Kennedy Serve America Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, set the goal of recruiting 250,000 domestic volunteers by fiscal 2017. The total national service positions in fiscal year 2016, however, was only 85,928.
Likewise, the Peace Corps has not met its goal of recruiting 10,000 volunteers per year since 1968. In 2016 the Peace Corps had about 7,213 volunteers serving in 65 nations.
“We have been underfunding these programs,” Huffman said. “There is demand out there, people by the thousands who want to participate in service programs, and Congress has not been appropriating the funding to meet that demand.”
The act would provide the funding needed for 260,000 national and international American volunteers and an additional 240,000 teachers and health professionals. A certain amount of the funding would be earmarked for small rural communities where physician shortages are most acute.
“It’s a desperate situation,” Huffman said. “My Veterans Administration clinic in Eureka for example has had no physicians for many months.”
The bill would encourage people to remain in the national health service corps longer by increasing the federal loan forgiveness available to them. Currently, a health volunteer can qualify for up to $50,000 in loan forgiveness after two years of service. Huffman’s bill would increase that to $100,000 for volunteers who serve five years.
The bill would also increase the loan forgiveness available to teachers who serve five years from $5,000 to $21,970. And the legislation would increase the educational grant available to domestic volunteers, such as VISTA and AmeriCorps, from $5,775 to $21,970 while instituting a new $21,970 educational grant for Peace Corps volunteers who complete two years of service.
“That would be amazing. It would make college accessible in a different way,” said Marilee Eckert, chief executive of Conservation Corps North Bay. Eckert said over the past two years 40 young adults in Conservation Corps North Bay have been enrolled as AmeriCorps members qualifying them for the AmeriCorps education grant.
“Many of our members have dropped out of high school or had struggles in their life,” Eckert said.
The text of Huffman’s bill includes requests for more than $4.1 billion over the next seven years for these programs. But Alexa Shaffer, a Huffman aide, said, “We actually don’t have a cost estimate for the overall bill because the Congressional Budget Office has not yet analyzed the bill.”
Shaffer said the cost would likely change based on the both the number of participants in the volunteer programs, as well as the number of individuals that would use the public service loan repayment programs.
Dwayne Hunn of Mill Valley, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mumbai, India, from 1966 to 1968, says such an effort would be worth the cost. Hunn has lobbied for a similar but even larger effort for years through his nonprofit, People’s Lobby.
“You talk to almost any Peace Corps volunteer and they will say it was a life-changing event in their life,” Hunn said. “Americans get to know other nations and the problems they have, and the sense of empathy grows.”
Hunn says the goodwill generated by an expansion of the Peace Corps would make it much tougher for enemies of the United States to recruit terrorists. Asked if he expects the bill to receive support from any Republicans in the House of Representatives, Huffman said, “I hope so. There is certainly a history of bipartisan support for at least some of these national service programs; but I don’t have that support right now so we’ve got some work to do.”
Huffman added, “There are a lot of Republican districts that are suffering from the same chronic inability to recruit and retain health providers. This would help those communities in a big way.”