While AmeriCorps leaders fumble finances, members prioritize strength on the ground

After AmeriCorps failed numerous financial audit reports, House lawmakers call into question the agency’s endurance.

By Vanessa Montalbano

Tiger Mar, 23, served as an AmeriCorps member through City Year — an education non-profit that partners with public schools in 29 high-need communities across the country — during a gap year between high school and college. He said it was a “really unique” experience not only for him, but also for the kids he served.

For a year, Mar worked in an elementary school in Boston helping 19 fifth graders upgrade their reading levels. He said his goal was to give them each individualized support in the classroom so that they were ready for the transition to sixth grade. On his last day, Mar said the kids latched on to him at lunch, pleading him to stay.

Mar is just one of more than 270,000 AmeriCorps members and volunteers placed in various intensive service positions in roughly 40,000 communities throughout the United States.

AmeriCorps was established in 1993 as a federal community service agency that enlists people to serve directly with non-profit organizations. It has a long standing reputation of  “smashing success,” acting Chief Executive Officer Malcolm Coles told lawmakers Wednesday during a House Education and Labor Committee hearing examining the agency’s policies and priorities.

The agency has responded to pressing challenges in the aftermath of disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Flint water crisis and COVID-19, as well as other issues such as food insecurity, literacy skills and companionship to older adults.

“AmeriCorps is so many things,” Mar said. “You know, I could see the huge impact we had on Boston public schools. That’s just one city of one branch of AmeriCorps. Imagine the rest?”

However, regardless of the agency being instrumental to the communities it serves, Deborah Jeffrey, inspector general at AmeriCorps, told lawmakers that AmeriCorps has not shown progress on serious financial issues for years.

“It is because I think these programs are important that I am pushing so hard that they be on a sound financial footing,” she testified.

For the past five years, Jeffrey said, AmeriCorps has not delivered complete financial records in its audits and instead attached a disclaimer, or a legal statement about financial information to reduce liability, to the documents.

Plus, since 2019 she said the agency has only implemented 10 of 73 suggestions from the House Education and Labor committee to address continued financial discrepancies.

Coles testified that the remaining 63 weaknesses still do not have an established corrective action plan, though he said his team is committed to resolving each with urgency.

“AmeriCorps should not be trusted with the tax dollars of the American people,” said ranking member Virgina Foxx (R-N.C.) “Despite repeated demands from Congress to improve its management and get its fiscal house in order, AmeriCorps has failed to deliver.”

In an audit report that was released just two weeks ago, the committee found an additional nine material weaknesses related to poor communications, lack of responsiveness and fraud risk.

As a result, Foxx said AmeriCorps is a “failed agency” that needs to be “cut completely” or “just eliminated.”

Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) countered Foxx in his opening statement, saying that both the committee and AmeriCorps must be dedicated to modernizing and strengthening the agency’s financial infrastructure to “ensure it is carrying out its mission and delivering on behalf of its members, communities and taxpayers.”

Yet, many of the Republican lawmakers on the committee echoed Foxx’s concern, repeating that the current financial situation within AmeriCorps was too “scandalous” and that when dealing with public funds, public trust is critical.

“It [AmeriCorps] should be defunded until they can deal with it,” said Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa.) emphasizing a lack of transparency and commitment at AmeriCorps’ leadership level. 

But, Mar says the strength of AmeriCorps is on the ground — not on Capitol Hill.

“The people like me, who actually interacted with the community they served, are the ones who see the real impact,” he said. “A bunch of lawmakers in Washington wanting to cut costs, or a bureaucratic leadership that can’t get it together, don’t actually see the consequences.”

If AmeriCorps were to be defunded, Mar said the result would be “incredibly disappointing.”

“We would instantly see a dramatic, rapid decline in community support across the country,” he said. “And, the only people would suffer are those who already live in underscored and under resourced communities.”

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