Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Peace Corps is Not Volunteering

"The contents of this [blog] are personal and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps."

I was at Peace Corps Reconnect which is when the new 2-year volunteers come back after 6 months to go over issues they're having and for continuing education. I overheard one volunteer complaining about how her in-country counterpart wanted her to be working a 40 hour work week(like we're supposed to) and she was griping about how she isn't an employee, she's a volunteer. They should be happy that she's there at all.

Ohhhhh, that irked me. Because we're here to do a job and we are being compensated for it. Without even considering the intangibles like resume building, free personal training and great opportunity to travel etc, we certainly get compensated. Don't think so? Well (as Kai Ryssdal says) let's do the numbers.

Now ignoring opportunity cost of not making a "real" salary while in Peace Corps and not contributing to retirement, let's look at how PC volunteers are compensated:

Travel- This varies from country to country but they pay for you to fly to/from the country from your home of record. But you've got to think most of these countries aren't heavily traveled so have higher flight costs. Ever try to fly to Vanuatu? I don't think it's easy to get to. But let's say $1,500 to be on the low end.

Rent- Unless you are living with your parents, you would have to pay some form of rent which would vary state to state but let's say, even with a roommate, no less than $500/month. As a PC volunteer you don't have to pay for housing so in essence you are earning that.

Food- This again varies country to country and matches the minimum wage earners food allowances. $150/month is a good average.

Health Care- This is a big one! My first year out of school, I got a high deductible insurance plan that still was $100/month. As Peace Corps members we get it all. I had an MRI for free. And if you have an issue that requires services that are beyond your country's capabilities, they airlift you somewhere that can do the procedure. So what's that worth a month? Let's say: $200/month.

Moving In Allowance- It wasn't much but we are given a moving in allowance to buy pots and pans and what not. I lucked out and have the uncanny ability to cook all my meals in one pot so I actually made money on the deal. Plus they bought me a brand new bike.

Readjustment Allowance- Peace Corps recognizes that volunteers may need some time before getting a job or whatnot so they provide a readjustment allowance of about $300/month.

Sub-total: $15,525/year

So while that's not A LOT of money. I think that's actually right at the poverty line right? But with better social supports and safety nets. And definitely not NOT compensated(Sorry Mrs Blado for the double negative). But that's not all the 2 year volunteers get. In addition, they get:

Coverdell Fellowships: The top-tier universities that offer these fellowships for graduate schools have different awards but they range from $5,000 to full tuition AND a living stipend. But let's say on average:

Non-competitive Federal Status:While this isn't necessarily a short-term financial incentive, it is actually probably one of the biggest perks for the two year volunteers. Having this status allows them to apply to positions without going through a lengthy competitive process. Plus those two years of service count towards federal retirement benefits. Which means that now they only have 18 more years of work in the federal system to get full retirement benefits. So at 24-26 years old, that's looking at a 44 year old retirement(pension does get decreased if you retire that early but STILL).

Vacation Days: But the icing on the cake is that you get 2 days of vacation per month. Yes: that's 24/year or almost 5 whole weeks. How did you think I was able to go to so many cool places this past year?

So as you can see, especially if you are a 2 year volunteer, there are a lot of perks and quite a bit of financial incentives or as I like to think of it: a salary. To do my job. If you go about thinking of yourself as a volunteer and that everyone should be just happy you show up at all, it's probably best not to join the Peace Corps and instead volunteer somewhere where you have to fund your own housing and travel and often pay get no benefits. That's volunteering. This is work. No need to be self righteous and certainly not appropriate to shirk duties because you think you're not compensated. As, hopefully I've shown, you certainly are. Just like real work.

Fun work. Rewarding work. But work.

Sorry for the rant.

Until next time,



  1. What about the opportunity cost?

  2. Great post Dan.

    Do you think it is reasonable to look at the opportunity cost?

    1. Chip! It is certainly reasonable. I just didn't because I think that balances out with the cost of regret if I opted out ;)

      So when are you coming to visit in Columbia?