“National service as a strategy to address poverty dates back to 1964, when Sargent Shriver created the domestic Peace Corps equivalent called Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.”
As we set about doing the work of building content for The Shriver Report over the past two years, we set some ambitious goals for our team. Not only would we strive to be a voice of urgency – identifying the precarious economic situation of a full third of American women as a problem worth solving – but to challenge ourselves and our partners actively to engage in solving this problem.
An important testament to our country’s longstanding commitment to eradicating poverty is the number of programs that do exist to help women and families living on the brink of financial distress. Food, housing, health care, child care, and income support programs are all critical to enabling women to work their way out of poverty. And most of these programs have enjoyed enduring bipartisan support.
But we learned on our journey – as so many women have learned on their own – that these programs are hard to understand and that eligibility requirements differ from program to program. There are very few resources out there to help busy, working mothers cut through the misinformation to access the very programs designed to help them.
There’s about to be one more. It’s a new AmeriCorps VISTA program called the Shriver Corps, in honor of Sargent Shriver’s groundbreaking work to tackle poverty through national service. The Shriver Corps will have a specific focus of alleviating poverty among families, women, and children. And it will be run by LIFT, an innovative nonprofit whose culture of service is based on respect and collaboration with the individuals it serves.
Here is Shirley Sagawa in The Shriver Report, on what this new Shriver Corps will look like and the promise it holds for the 70 million women and children living on the brink of poverty in America today:
So today, with many millions of women and families living on or over the brink of poverty, we have a new opportunity. The national service model could present a scalable way to increase opportunity for millions of families.
To this end, corporation for national and community service CEO Wendy Spencer has agreed to deploy VISTAs around the country in a new Shriver Corps. They will develop tools connecting eligible low-income families with the educational opportunities, job training, and access to public benefits that can help them get on firm economic footing—and then train community volunteers how to use these tools. By pairing the Shriver Corps’ low-cost, high-impact human capital with computer technology we have today, we can help states easily and efficiently identify and connect struggling women and their families to available sources of assistance—providing more efficient access instead of brick walls.
Unfortunately, even though congress authorized a large expansion of AmeriCorps in 2009, funding has actually declined in recent years, causing many programs to close. Fully funding AmeriCorps, particularly VISTA and the Opportunity Corps authorized under the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, would enable programs such as LIFT to grow. In addition, states could use federal TANF block-grant funds to support AmeriCorps positions that assist TANF recipients; one of the goals of the law is to “end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage.”
In this way, a national system of AmeriCorps members leading, training, and working with volunteers—all using shared computer technology to connect clients with programs and opportunities—could provide a scalable solution to supply the human resources needed to help every low-income family find a way out of poverty. Fifty years after the War on poverty was launched, we can do this.
A portion of this piece is an excerpt from The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, in partnership with the Center for American Progress. Download the full report here for FREE from January 12th – January 15th.