- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Looking to spur community service, lawmakers in both the House and Senate took steps Wednesday to triple AmeriCorps and expand programs to get both the young and old involved in helping in their neighborhoods.

The House opened debate on a bill to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 enrollees, with a new emphasis on residents of low-income communities in the areas of education, clean energy, health and services for veterans.

The measure also would create fellowships for people 55 and older and a separate Summer of Service program for middle and high school student volunteers, who would earn a $500 education award to help cover college costs.

The White House endorsed the bill Tuesday, and the House is expected to vote on the legislation Thursday. President Barack Obama pledged during the campaign to provide government support for national service programs. A Senate committee approved a similar measure that would also add 175,000 positions to AmeriCorps. It could come before the full Senate for a vote as early as next week.

Supporters say the effort comes at a time when more people are interested in serving their communities and more people could use the help.

“At time of crisis, people turn to fundamental values,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. “When they see credit dry up in the community, they think about people who are losing their homes, and responding to that.”

Miller, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said whether it is a tsunami across the globe or a flood on the Mississippi River, “Americans step up.” He said the bill would give them more opportunities to get involved, including military personnel returning home from war.

Some Republicans have expressed concern that the government would be taking over work that’s done voluntarily by people who are not paid.

“Well, I think it’s important that we encourage volunteers, but this is a paid job,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. “This is a government-authorized charity.”

Obama’s proposed budget for next year calls for more than $1.1 billion for national service programs, an increase of more than $210 million. Sponsors used next year’s figure as a blueprint for the bill but were awaiting a cost analysis from budget experts.

Some AmeriCorps participants get a living stipend while they are working for 10 to 12 months. The stipend ranges from $11,400 to $22,800 for the year. Most participants, who are predominantly 18- to 26-year-olds, get $11,800. After completing the program, they can receive up to $4,725 to help pay for college or pay off student loans. The bill would increase the education award to $5,350 and requires that it match any future increases in Pell Grant scholarships.

Members of AmeriCorps work for nonprofit, faith-based or national organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity. They provide a variety of service, from mentoring young people to responding to disasters.

Over the last year, AmeriCorps has received three applications for every slot, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that oversees the program.

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The House bill is H.R. 1388.

The Senate bill is S.277.

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On the Net:

Congress: http://www.thomas.loc.gov

AmeriCorps: http://www.americorps.org/

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