HARTFORD, CT — The late President John F. Kennedy would have been 102 years old today but Rep. John B. Larson is keeping his commitment to serving America alive in the form of a new bill he will introduce to Congress next week.
“It was President Kennedy who so inspired generations of America to the call to public service,” Larson said at a Legislative Office Building press conference Wednesday. “Whether it was his aspirational goal to make sure we put a man on the moon in 10 years, or what we are here to talk about today — his signature public service accomplishment — the establishment of the Peace Corps.”
The ACTION for National Service Act will expand opportunities for national service as well as make college more affordable for American youth who choose to join a national service organization.
Larson said he hopes to continue Kennedy’s vision of “a youthful, American, forward-looking experience for people who are willing to get involved in something bigger than themselves.” The legislation will increase the opportunities available for those who want to serve the country by supporting at least one million federal service positions.
Larson lamented that less than 1% of Americans served in a national service organization, but affirmed that it wasn’t for lack of interest.
“A nation as gifted and as great as ours cannot long survive if more Americans are not stepping forward to serve,” Larson said. “And it’s not for lack of wanting to do so. Americorps turned down over 80% of its applicants.”
In addition to funding enough positions for all Americans who wish to serve, the bill would reduce student-loan debts by ensuring that those who serve two full terms of service receive education benefits equivalent to four years of state tuition at a public university.
Larson said this could also help those who aren’t interested in attending a university after their service.
“We look to expand opportunity as well,” Larson said. “It’s often not just a college education that’s desirable, but whether it’s a trade or specific expertise that has been certified by the Corporation for National and Community Service.”
Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the Connecticut Commission for Community Service, said while 1% serve formally, countless others serve every day.
“I know all of us know people that serve, whether we’re getting credit for the hours we serve — Americans serve, that’s what we do,” Johnson said. “If it’s helping our neighbor that’s ill, if we’re helping collect toiletries for the homeless, why shouldn’t that something count?”
Johnson said this legislation is a way to give back to the Americans who help out in their communities with money for education that will not be taxed.
“That’s a big deal for a college student to be able to understand that while I’ve earned say $14,000, I am not going to be taxed on that $14,000 once I am prepared to use it for tuition,” Johnson said. “I would like to applaud that there is legislation that would support students and any person that is interested in doing service.”
While in the service, volunteers under the new bill would receive a tax-free minimum-wage stipend. In the past, the stipend was subject to taxes which, according to current Americorps volunteer Aaron Owens, is burdensome.
“I’ve been working with Americorps for three years and for the past three years it’s been taxed,” Owens said. “If we did go to use that money toward school because we didn’t have money, you were getting taxed on it. It was a catch-22. I need this money to help me, but I need money to use my money.”
Owens said Lamont’s signing of the new minimum wage bill will also help volunteers like him.
“Right now the stipend really isn’t that much,” Owens said. “The work is a lot, we do 40 hours a week. That increase helps so that maybe some people wouldn’t have to get a second job while working here.”
The proposed bill would also elevate the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to a cabinet-level executive agency. The Director of the National Service would be equal to other cabinet secretaries.
“This will provide the enhancements and making sure the stipends people receive while they are actually working are not subject to taxation and meet the minimum wage standards so they can subsist while they are doing their work,” Larson said.
The bill is co-sponsored Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat from Massachusetts, in the House, but has the support of U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Jack Reed in the Senate as well as the support of Connecticut’s two senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. Larson is confident the bill will succeed.
“It will have bipartisan support,” Larson said.