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War on Poverty Book Misses the Program's Overall Successes

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Just one serious academic book has been published this year to mark the 50th anniversary of one of America's most innovative and productive efforts: Lyndon Johnson's work to eradicate poverty.

Legacies of the War on Poverty, edited by Martha J. Bailey and Sheldon Danziger and published by the Russell Sage Foundation, would stand out in any case because it is carefully researched, even in tone, and balanced in its findings.

But it is an even more welcome and timely book given the low commitment politicians and the rest of the nation have made to eradicating poverty. Today's 15-percent poverty rate and the persistence of joblessness and hunger have yet to move the American public to call for serious remedial action.

The Sage foundation volume analyzes in economic terms the difference made by some of the federal major programs passed during the War on Poverty and concludes they were a success. The book points out that programs run by the Office of Economic Opportunity, such as Head Start, the Job Corps, and an effort to spread community health centers, were only part of a total Johnson attack on poverty.

Passage of the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the food-stamp program as well as increases in Social Security were also essential. It was, as the authors note, "a grand policy experiment" whose combined influence on public policy was greater than that of any program on its own.

While the editors make this point, they nonetheless focus their attention almost entirely on selected individual programs. They fail to examine the long-term, more intangible impacts of the War on Poverty that do not lend themselves to statistical analysis.

For example, they don't mention the more than 1,200 community-action agencies that were established during the first year of the antipoverty effort, nor do they discuss the impact those organizations have had.

Those agencies gave birth to the concepts of citizen participation and the active involvement of poor people in public decision making, notions that have become part of our working democracy.

They also spawned thousands of local social and economic programs that reached many millions of Americans who had never before been the subject of federal attention.

Established at a county or multi-county level, these nonprofit organizations were composed of representatives of poor communities, social-service agencies, and local governments. They challenged local power structures to reorder their priorities and focus more on the needs of poor people.

With budgets often larger than those of local governments, those agencies were responsible for the vast expansion of nonprofit organizations throughout the country, probably the largest growth in nonprofits since the early 1900s.

Perhaps as important, community-action agencies pushed previously weak and poorly financed local and state governments to deal with poverty issues, overhaul their governance structures, and strengthen their financial capacities.

Nor does the book mention what could be considered one of the major legacies of the War on Poverty: the creation of new, young leaders who came from poor, working class, or minority backgrounds.

People who never before had an opportunity to run nonprofit or government agencies were for the first time given the chance to succeed or fail.

One reason the book fails to account for these outstanding achievements is because it would be harder to document them compared with other parts of the War on Poverty.

Much of the history of the community-action programs remains largely in the memories of a dwindling group of Office of Economic Opportunity and community-action employees who participated in programs firsthand five decades ago. These participants need to be interviewed before it is too late. Their perspectives and views could fill in the gaps that Legacies doesn't address.

Or perhaps a second book could explore the impact and influence of community action and its multiplicity of programs, the leadership programs that changed the way America is run, and the reform of local and state governments that strengthened our democracy.

Even in this book alone, however, Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger have brought us an important reminder of the significance of federal programs in curing social ills and the importance of President Johnson's willingness to use the power and influence of the federal government to get things done.

President Obama would be wise to read that closely and start following LBJ's lead.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle contributor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His email address is pseisenberg@verizon.net.