Tens of thousands of Americans could see more opportunities to mentor children, help rebuild homes and participate in other national service under a measure passed by the House.
The House voted 321-105 Wednesday to expand AmeriCorps and other national service programs by 175,000 participants. The measure also would create new groups to help poor communities with education, clean energy, health and services for veterans.
Supporters say the effort comes at a time when more people are interested in serving their communities and more people could use the extra help.
The bill "reaches out to all Americans from all walks of life and asks them to commit to service," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO). "During these difficult times, our nation needs the help of each and every one of us more than ever."
A Senate committee approved an expansion Wednesday that was somewhat similar, adding 175,000 positions to AmeriCorps alone. That bill, which triples the size of the program, could reach the Senate floor next week.
President Obama said he was pleased by the House's action and was eager for the Senate to pass the legislation so he can sign it.
"At this moment of economic crisis, when so many people are in need of help and so much needs to be done, this could not be more urgent," said Obama, who pledged during the campaign to provide government support for national service programs.
The House measure would also create fellowships for people 55 and older and a separate Summer of Service program for middle- and high-school student volunteers, who would earn a $500 education award to help cover college costs. It also looks for ways to get scientists and veterans more involved in community service.
Some Republicans have expressed concern the government would be taking over work that's done voluntarily by people who are not paid.
"Well, I think it's important that we encourage volunteers, but this is a paid job," said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC). "This is a government-authorized charity."
The House measure is slated to cost $6 billion over five years.
Obama's proposed budget for next year calls for more than $1.1 billion for national service programs, an increase of more than $210 million.
Some AmeriCorps participants get a living stipend while they are working for 10 to 12 months. The stipend ranges from $11,400 to $22,800 for the year. Most participants, who are predominantly 18 to 26 years old, get $11,800. After completing the program, they can receive up to $4,725 to help pay for college or pay off student loans. The bill would increase the education award to $5,350 and requires that it match any future increases in Pell Grant scholarships.
Members of AmeriCorps work for nonprofit, faith-based or national organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity. They provide a variety of services, such as teaching young people or responding to disasters.
Over the past year, AmeriCorps has received three applications for every slot, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that oversees the program.