WASHINGTON — In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy exhorted the youth of America to ask what they could do for their country. In his inaugural budget, President Trump wants the government largely out of the national service business.
Mr. Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service, and with it, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Vista, one of Mr. Kennedy’s first national service programs.
He would zero out a popular loan forgiveness program for graduates who choose public service jobs, and he would cut the Peace Corps by 15 percent. The cuts would extend to other programs that encourage young Americans to teach in at-risk schools, become police officers or take careers in social work.
Mr. Trump’s budget proposal “ends eight decades of presidential leadership on national service,” said AnnMaura Connolly, president of Voices for National Service. “It’s disappointing to see that strong string of bipartisan leadership broken.”
The Trump administration has said the proposals are part of the larger effort to balance the nation’s budget, emphasize national security and spend taxpayer dollars on programs that are efficient and effective.
But since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped the country recover from the Great Depression, presidents have used service programs to engage Americans in tackling issues such as poverty, housing and disaster relief, offer young people experience and create jobs. Kennedy founded Peace Corps for Americans to provide service abroad, and Vista for those wishing to serve at home.
Richard Nixon created the Senior Corps for older Americans. Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity still receives federal assistance for its efforts to build affordable housing. George Bush promoted his “Points of Light” to enroll the private sector and lay the groundwork for Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps. George W. Bush embraced the USA Freedom Corps and made the largest investment in national service ever, including growing the Peace Corps program.
John Bridgeland, who served as director of the USA Freedom Corps, which coordinated service after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said presidents had turned to national service programs to heal divides, solve public problems at a lower cost and train young people to become leaders who can get past their differences.
Each successive president protected the legacy of his predecessor. And on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump acknowledged that national service was popular among young people, saying there was “something beautiful about it.”
“What presidents have been remembered for is awakening people to be part of democracy and part of repairing and fixing the country,” said Mr. Bridgeland, who now serves as vice chairman of Service Year Alliance. “It seems more urgent now than ever, given the state of things.”
William A. Galston, who helped start AmeriCorps as domestic policy adviser to Mr. Clinton, said, “The people who put together the president’s budget know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.”
Mr. Trump’s tax and spending blueprint for the fiscal year that begins in October marks a break in a nearly century-old tradition of layering service programs on existing service programs. The president’s proposed cut to the Peace Corps would be the largest the agency has seen in 40 years, the National Peace Corps Association said.
Mr. Trump’s “orderly shutdown” of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which has been operating national service programming since 1993, has the goal of “returning responsibility to fund national service and volunteerism to the private and nonprofit sectors,” according to the Trump budget.
The proposals are almost certain to face bipartisan opposition. Eric Tanenblatt, who served on the board of the national service corporation in the first Bush administration, said that the agency is one of the few with a bipartisan board, and it retains support in both parties. While Congress funds about $1 billion of its budget, another $1.2 billion comes from private and local sources.
“We have to prioritize where we spend our scarce resources,” Mr. Tanenblatt said, “but the funding for C.N.C.S. is one of the bright lights in the federal government that is doing tremendous work.”
Disbanding the organization’s most high-profile programs, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, would jeopardize posts for about 80,000 AmeriCorps members and 245,000 Senior Corps volunteers serving in more than 50,000 locations across the country.
The cuts could also have collateral damage to high-profile education programs, such as City Year and Teach for America, which rely on AmeriCorps experience to supply the educators that they send to low-performing schools. The most recent Teacher of the Year, Sydney Chaffee, is an AmeriCorps alum.
Precious Lango, 25, relied on federal student loans to get through Georgia Southern University. When she graduated in 2014, her plans to pursue an advanced degree in physical therapy fell through. Then she came across AmeriCorps.
She moved across the country to Tulsa, Okla., where for two years she has been helping to teach math in a high school of at-risk youth through City Year, which is supported by AmeriCorps. Next year, she will continue teaching at the school through Teach for America.
“I’ve learned that education is where I was supposed to be,” Ms. Lango said. “It’s just showed me how life is not just about me. These students have made my heart so much larger.”
In exchange for their service, AmeriCorps members receive an education award, currently $5,815, another benefit on the chopping block. And cuts like that come at a time where college students looking to go into public service are facing the loss of other financial assistance.
The proposed 2018 budget would also zero out a student loan forgiveness program for college graduates who choose lower-paying service careers, such as teaching and public safety. More than 500,000 people have signed up for the Public Loan Forgiveness Program, which started in 2007. Under the program, college graduates who pursue certain public service jobs are relieved of student loan debt after 10 years. If the Trump proposal is adopted, the program would not be available to students borrowing after 2018.
The Education Department said that the elimination of the program was to help simplify student loan programs, and “generate savings to help put the nation on a more sustainable fiscal path.”
Teachers’ union leaders say the program has been a valuable recruitment tool, especially for teachers who take on hard subjects, like special education, and go to particularly rural or urban areas.
“Those are the ones we are willing to convince to do the hard work,” Lily Eskelsen García, president the National Education Association, said. “We have actively gone out and promoted careers in public service, teaching based on this program.”
The budget proposal has shaken the public service community, and many borrowers who benefit from the program are panicking, said Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis. She said that even borrowers who qualify are concerned about what will happen to the program 10 years from now.
“Students are planning their careers around these programs,” Ms. Abrams said, “and we’re discouraging public servants.”