The Chronicle of Philanthropy
By: Pablo Eisenberg
January 8, 2014
When President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty" 50 years ago in his State of the Union speech, it marked the first time the federal government had ever started 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.
Not only did Johnson's effort succeed in sharply lowering the poverty rate, but he put Americans' responsibility to help the poor on the radar screen for at least two decades. And he helped spark a grass-roots revolution across the country to train the needy in community-organizing techniques so they could push for policies that would truly make a difference. Although not often thought of this way, the War on Poverty became one of the greatest leadership-development programs America has ever created--nurturing many minorities and poor people to become the federal, state, and nonprofit leaders who have transformed the United States in the past decades.
With a starting budget of $1-billion in 1964, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the flagship of the Johnson anti-poverty push, created new programs and services, many of which still exist today. These programs--Head Start, Job Corps, the Legal Services Corporation, and Volunteers in Service to America, as well as federally financed local health centers, development corporations, and action agencies--continue to provide vital assistance to millions of people in need throughout the country.
Supplemented by other efforts to help the poor--food stamps, Medicare, and more--federal programs brought about a reduction in poverty from 19 percent of Americans in 1964 to 10 percent in 1973.
But what was probably the most astonishing product of the Johnson anti-poverty programs was that for the first time in history, the federal government made a deliberate effort to encourage needy citizens to organize to put pressure on local authorities to solve problems.
This work came about through the most controversial and politically sensitive part of Johnson's effort: the creation of community-action agencies-- local organizations with independent boards and budgets that received federal aid to provide social services and advocacy assistance to the poor. More than 1,000 such groups were created within just a year of the opening of the Office of Economic Opportunity. For me and many of the others who worked at the office and the programs it financed, we felt enormous excitement and hope that we were successfully working for change.
The idea for community-action agencies was developed in the 1960s through a Ford Foundation grant-making program called "Gray Areas" and by the New York nonprofit organization Mobilization for Youth. The premise was that local residents needed the power and tools to play an active role in their own communities.
To spread the idea, the Johnson administration decided to require low-income people to serve on local boards of community-action agencies that oversaw social-service programs. It was a revolutionary idea in many places and one that rankled many politicians and government officials and civic institutions that were unaccustomed to hearing strong views from poor and minority residents.
Community-action agencies legitimized organizing as an effective tool for change, helping many nonprofit groups get started. While we now take it for granted that local organizing is a key step for nonprofits pushing for change, too often we forget that this would not have been the case without the War on Poverty and the programs it created.
Many, if not most, of the African-American, Latino, and Native-American state government leaders, superintendents of schools, members of Congress, and nonprofit founders of the 1970s and beyond got their start working in programs operated by the Office of Economic Opportunity. And in Appalachia, poor whites became judges, school superintendents, and elected officials because of the same programs.
Community-action groups accomplished many other things. The agencies challenged weak local and state governments. As a result, many local jurisdictions became stronger. They learned to develop 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 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.
While the Office of Economic Opportunity accomplished much, its weaknesses are instructive today to leaders pushing to help the poor.
The agency made a big mistake in placing overly tight limits on the definition of who was poor. In so doing, it excluded millions of low-income white working-class people from its work, 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 agency also failed to hold the organizations it created and financed accountable. Many big-city community-action agencies, such as the ones in Chicago and Philadelphia, were corrupt, serving the special needs of their Democratic mayors,
As director of Pennsylvania programs for the Office of Economic Opportunity, I wanted to close the Philadelphia operation because it was both corrupt and unaccountable. Yet because the mayor did not want to upset some of his black constituents, who were benefiting from the program, I was overruled by direct orders from Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The administration's willingness to tolerate the shenanigans of Democratic politicians, especially in big cities, helped undermine the integrity of community action.
Perhaps the most important failure came from President Johnson himself. At a certain point, he lost interest in the Office for Economic Opportunity, in part because of political controversies over its programs. He wasn't willing to push Congress to provide enough funds to maintain the vitality of federal programs to promote economic opportunity after the initial burst of activity.
That void continues today. No president who followed Johnson has been willing or capable of making the fight against poverty a national priority.
Instead, federal leaders have slowly rolled back the safety net, leaving the country's poor--by today's definition, 15 percent of Americans--increasingly vulnerable and unprotected, preferring instead to enhance benefits for the rich and to stress middle-class needs.
The Democrats who followed Johnson paid little attention to the poor. President Clinton mentioned poverty just once in a State of the Union address, and President Obama has yet to do so. And now Congress is trimming unemployment benefits for the neediest and cutting back on food stamps.
Our politicians should be ashamed of themselves. For the richest country on the globe to demonstrate so little interest and compassion for its neediest is a dishonor to our noble tradition of democracy and human rights.
Perhaps the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty will persuade President Obama to recommit his administration to the cause of poverty, which he has often talked about but done so little to diminish.