As the Oct. 1 deadline for Congress to settle on a spending agreement approaches, President Donald Trump’s proposed budget is worrying a handful of north Mississippi agencies.
Dubbed “A New Foundation for American Greatness”, the president’s first budget recommendation includes some drastic cuts to government programs built to strengthen local communities after natural disasters. The New York Times reported that Education, Training, Employment and Social Services would be cut 27.9 percent over the next 10 years.
“As previously outlined in the President’s Budget Blueprint released in March, this budget proposes the elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) in FY 2018, and provides funding for an orderly shutdown,” AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) states on its website.
AmeriCorps VISTA and other civil social services were initiated in 1993 under the National and Community Service Act. They provide the opportunity for people to engage in their local communities and make a difference through volunteer service. The AmeriCorps Disaster Response took action in response to Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and the wildfires that have ravaged the American West. Trump’s “A New Foundation for American Greatness” budget plan would cut the Corporation for National and Community Service, taking AmeriCorps with it.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is an outspoken voice against the proposed cuts. In an April editorial to the Washington Post, Barbour wrote strongly in opposition to Trump’s budget.
“I urge my Republican colleagues to consider carefully before swinging the budget ax toward national service programs, as President Trump has proposed,” he wrote. “These programs are crucial when it comes to disaster response. Having governed Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in our nation’s history, I know all too well.”
Locally, AmeriCorps has many different facets. At the University of Mississippi, the McLean Institute for Public Service leads and administers the North Mississippi VISTA Program. The McLean Institute connects students to the community, with focus on improving the availability and quality of education for underprivileged families. In the face of budget cuts at a national level, local programs like this one would depend heavily on donations from private investors.
“Our focus is on creating sustainable programs and partnerships that will outlast the VISTA program – and that is our approach, regardless of the outcome of appropriations cycles,” Laura Martin, assistant director of the McLean Institute, said. “Community partnerships are critical to advancing the work of the McLean Institute and the North Mississippi VISTA Project in our shared work to fight poverty through education.”
Martin, who served as an AmeriCorps member in Texas from 2006 to 2007, said her year of service was “life-changing.”
“I gained on-the-ground perspectives about poverty – and in particular, homelessness, immigration and health care – that informed my decision to pursue a master’s degree in public policy and enter into the advocacy arena,” she said.
Other local AmeriCorps partners include United Way, a program that cooperates with other social services, such as the American Red Cross, to combine man power and resources within the community.
“We currently only have one VISTA faction in our office,” Kurt Brummett, executive director of United Way of Oxford and Lafayette County, said. “And our funding is strictly through donations unless we get a grant. We don’t want to see VISTA go, but hopefully we would be able to continue our work.”
In August 2015, the University of Mississippi received a $575,000 grant to maintain the North Mississippi VISTA program. Funding went toward programs such as the Tupelo back-to-school fair, community mentoring for the Desoto County Youth Court System and a tutoring collaboration between the University of Mississippi’s Luckyday Academic Success Program and Crenshaw Elementary School.
In June 2017, the CNCS approved $532 million in funds to AmeriCorps. This funding has gone into the recovery effort in Texas after Hurricane Harvey as well as transporting goods and services to those affected by Hurricane Irma in Florida.
Ellis Starkey, a current VISTA volunteer at the McLean Institute, said volunteers are accustomed to making the most of bare-boned budgets.
“This is an incredible program and opportunity that’s given me a lot of perspective on life and how we value things around us,” Starkey said. “We’re already working on a reduced stipend. I can only imagine that a cut would eliminate the VISTA program in north Mississippi. We (the community) need to get involved directly and apply to and support the VISTA program so that future generations have this opportunity.”