War on Poverty: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Office of Economic Opportunity

When President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty" fifty years ago in his State of the Union speech, it marked the first time the federal government had ever launched an aggressive program to eliminate poverty. Sadly, it was the last time an American President turned out to be a strong advocate for poor people.

With a starting budget of $1 billion in 1964, the Office of Economic Opportunity(OEO), the flag ship of the Johnson anti-poverty initiative, created a large number of new programs and services, many of which still exist today. These programs--Head Start, the Job Corps, Legal Services, community health centers, community development corporations, Volunteers in Service to America(Vista) and Community Action Agencies-- continue to provide vital assistance to millions of people in need throughout the country.

Other projects like the Neighborhood Youth Corps, summer youth programs, manpower training programs, senior centers and family planning clinics were eventually discontinued but later picked up in some form by other agencies, both state and federal. A robust research and demonstration division tested new ideas and projects, resulting in efforts such as early computer programs for middle school students, the creation of a Navajo community college and model comprehensive community service centers.

The programs managed by OEO were accompanied in 1964-65 by Medicare and Medicaid, the introduction of food stamps, the Civil Rights Act and the expansion of social security benefits. All these efforts combined to provide a successful comprehensive approach to poverty reduction. The poverty rate in the U.S. declined from approximately 19% in 1964 to 10.1% in 1973, a reduction --contrary to the view of conservative critics-- largely due to federal intervention.

The most controversial, politically sensitive and creative part of Johnson's anti-poverty program was the creation of community action agencies(CAA's) , local organizations with independent boards and budgets that provided social services and advocacy assistance to poor residents of both cities and counties as well as Indian reservations. State economic offices were also established to help coordinate and supplement the work of CAA's.

The premise of community action-- modeled on the Ford Foundation- funded Gray Areas Project and Mobilization for Youth in New York city--was that local residents, especially the poor, needed the power and tools to play an active role in the design and administration of the programs and services in their own communities. This concept, termed "maximum feasible participation", called for low income residents to be heavily represented on CAA boards as well as on the boards of local agencies that delivered social services. In many cities and counties, especially in rural areas, this was a revolutionary development that rankled many politicians and government officials. In numerous counties and small cities the CAA budgets exceeded those of their government jurisdictions, creating added tensions and recriminations.

In little over a year the Office of Economic Opportunity established well over 1,000 community action agencies, hired tens of thousands of people and initiated a slew of new programs to help poor and minority residents who had previously been ignored by the authorities. In most jurisdictions CAA's became either the lone or strongest advocate for the needs and rights of poor people. Not surprisingly, these developments stirred deep resentment and opposition from not only politicians and local government official but also from established civic institutions that were not used to hearing strong voices from those who had heretofore been silent.

By 1967 the political backlash grew strong enough for Congress to mandate changes in the structure of community action. Locally elected officials now had to designate a CAA as the official agency for the area before the latter could receive federal funds. Well over 90% of the CAA's remained nonprofit organizations; a few became government agencies. Their boards were required to be composed of one-third elected officials or those appointed by them, at least one-third low income representatives and one-third members of the private sector. While the increased representation of elected officials on the boards dampened the ardor of community action advocacy, the agencies continued their effective work of delivering services to their poor constituents. Surprisingly, almost all the agencies that existed in 1968 survive today.

The initial budget for community action agencies was a little more than $300 million. While this increased slightly over the next few years, it never became large enough to meet the CAA's increased demand for funds to meet inflationary costs and expanded work. Because of political pressure, the momentum that community action was building in its early years was never allowed to grow. Moreover, Sargent Shriver, who was never comfortable with community action agencies, never gave them his public relations stamp, preferring instead to publicize safer programs like Head Start, Job Corps and Vista.

Community Action, more than any other stimulus in the 1960's and 1970's, or since, prompted a phenomenal growth in nonprofit organizations. They were created to deliver the new services being offered by local community action agencies and the research and demonstration projects launched by the Office of

Economic Opportunity. Expanded state programs, encouraged by community action, also galvanized the growing nonprofit sector.

In its challenge to weak local and state governments, community action was at least indirectly responsible for helping transform these jurisdictions into more functional entities. County governments became stronger, developed reasonable budgets, began to deliver their own social and educational services, elected more enlightened legislators and executives, and took a greater interest in the plight of their poor residents. State governments also were motivated to change, if only to respond more adequately to the pressures and demands of a more activist federal government.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of community action was its emphasis, not always overt, that power and action were the keys to change for poor, minority and marginalized people. For the first time in history, our national government urged its needy citizens to organize to help themselves. For the first time, poor people were encouraged to speak out about their troubles and pressure the authorities to address their problems. Many community action agencies legitimized community organizing as an effective tool for change, helping a number of community organizing groups get started. Citizen participation, now so commonly accepted, was nurtured in the cradle of community action, for which the latter has never been given sufficient credit.

Yet several major weaknesses undermined the OEO managed anti-poverty programs. The first was their much too narrow definition of who was poor. That definition set the eligibility rate for inclusion in anti-poverty programs at such a low level that it excluded millions of low income white working class people, thereby fueling a serious division between many whites and people of color. For many whites, community action became known as a minority only program.
The second was the failure of OEO officials to hold numerous community action agencies and other OEO-funded programs publicly accountable. A number of big city CAA's, such as the ones in Chicago and Philadelphia, were corrupt, serving the special needs of their Democrat mayors. In Philadelphia, for example, the CAA was run by mayor Tate's special advisor for the Black community. As Director of Pennsylvania OEO programs, I wanted to close down the Philadelphia operation because it was both corrupt and unaccountable. Yet, because the mayor did not want to upset some of his Black constituents, I was overruled by direct orders from Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The Administration's willingness to tolerate the shenanigans of Democrat politicians, especially in big cities, helped undermine the integrity of community action.

The third weakness was the inability or unwillingness of the Administration and the Congress to provide sufficient funds to maintain the momentum and vitality of the programs. After a few years and some political controversies, President Johnson lost interest in the program, unwilling to further tarnish what he felt was his credibility.

Conservative and even some liberal critics have called the Johnson anti-poverty programs a failure that merely threw money at problems, an effort that created dependent poor people not independent workers. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Most of the programs created by OEO still exist today and, for the most part, are thriving. Even community action agencies that have over time been muted by politics and a shortage of funds still provide important t services and, in many rural areas, remain the only advocates for poor people. During its short tenure, from 1964-73, OEO aroused the interest and concern of Americans about poverty and its ill effects on their society; in short, it placed poverty on our political radar screen for at least two decades. It gave birth to community power, community participation and community development, concepts and activities that still have enormous currency today. And during a ten year period, it was successful enough to help substantially reduce the poverty rate. Not a bad record, I would argue.

But what was probably the most astonishing product of the Johnson anti-poverty programs was the vast cadre of minority and poor white leaders it developed in the 1960's through the 1990's. Many, if not most of the African-American, Latino and Native American superintendents of schools, Congressmen and state legislators, mayors and city councilmen, service agency heads and nonprofit directors in those years came out of the OEO programs. And in Appalachia poor whites became judges, school superintendents and elected officials. People of color and marginalized whites were finally given the opportunity to succeed or fail. It was the greatest leadership development program this country has ever seen. Little documented or talked about, it nevertheless deserves to be recognized as the crown jewel of the Johnson anti-poverty programs.

The latter left an enormous legacy and moral obligation for the country. But, unfortunately, this challenge has remained unfulfilled. The Presidents and Administrations that have followed proved themselves unwilling or incapable of making the fight against poverty a national priority. Instead, they have slowly rolled back the safety net, leaving the country's poor--by today's definition 15% of Americans-- increasingly vulnerable and unprotected, preferring instead to enhance benefits for the rich and stressing middle class needs. Presidents Clinton and Obama, with one exception by President Clinton, never mentioned poverty in their state of the union speeches. And now the Congress is shutting down unemployment benefits and cutting back on food stamps for poor families in a time of financial stress.

Our politicians should be ashamed of themselves. What type of leadership are they exercising not only in this country but throughout the rest of the world? For the richest country on the globe to demonstrate so little Interest and compassion for our neediest populations is a dishonor to our noble tradition of democracy and human rights. Might the 5oth anniversary of the Johnson anti-poverty programs commit President Obama to the cause of poverty he once rhetorically espoused but to date has done so little to implement? Let us hope so.