Relief bill could include coronavirus service jobs

The plan has echoes of Depression-era work programs that employed Americans to address national needs in a time of crisis.

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — National service organizations are pressing Congress to expand AmeriCorps and similar programs in the next coronavirus relief package to employ hundreds of thousands of young people to help rebuild communities devastated by the pandemic.

The plan has echoes of Depression-era work programs that employed Americans to address national needs in a time of crisis.

The service organizations already have the support of a bipartisan group of 16 senators — eight Republicans and eight Democrats — led by Chris Coons, D-Del., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who are the co-authors of the CORPS Act.

The bill, which supporters hope to include in a coronavirus stimulus measure under development in the Senate, would increase the number of jobs available in AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 a year over three years, boost the program's annual stipend to $25,000 and raise the educational grant for participants to $12,000, said AnnMaura Connolly, president of the nonprofit group Voices for National Service.

Projects related to coronavirus recovery and those in rural and high-poverty areas would be prioritized, as would the hiring of minorities, veterans, Native Americans, people with atypical abilities and people who have had contact with the juvenile justice system.

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"The federal funding currently available is not enough to help address the core weaknesses in education, the economy and public health exposed by this pandemic," Connolly and Rye Barcott, co-founder and CEO of the veterans group With Honor Action, wrote in a letter sent Sunday to Senate and House leaders on behalf of 168 civilian and veterans service organizations and obtained first by NBC News.

The main action is in the Senate, because the Democratic-led House, where there is also bipartisan support, is expected to be an easy lift for a bill that recalls President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.

"This is a defining moment for this generation of young people, and I think they want to be part of helping the country recover," Connolly said in a telephone interview. "I do think there are a lot of parallels."

Doug Andres, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Sunday that he did not yet have any guidance on whether the provisions of the bill were likely to be included in the stimulus measure.

But supporters, including veterans service organizations with strong ties to both parties, are ramping up now. The letter Sunday will be followed up with an ad campaign and stakeholder calls to Senate offices, Barcott said.

"The odds at this stage of getting anything done, obviously at this time of ridiculous polarization, is difficult, but I'm cautiously optimistic," Barcott said in a telephone interview. "I would say it's probably around 50-50."

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Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a telephone interview that he planned to put in a call to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, to assess what can be done to get it across the finish line.

"This is the kind of investment that I think could really make a difference for a lot of young people and for the country," he said.