What do such federal programs as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America and Job Corps have in common? They are remnants of the Great Society or the War on Poverty. It was fifty years ago that President Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty in his State of the Union speech on January 8, 1964. Here’s something of what Johnson said in that fifty-year-old speech:
“This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in that effort....
"Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and local level.
"For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.
"Very often, a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom.
"Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it–and above all, to prevent it.
"No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice."
As with all such sweeping programs, there was an important piece of legislation at its foundation. The bill contained not only some of the programs it would spawn, but the mechanisms by which it would operate. United States Public Law 88-452, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, authorized the formation of local Community Action Agencies as part of the War on Poverty. These agencies were directly funded and regulated by the federal government, but one of the provisions of the Act that is most often missed is that those CAAs were responsible for garnering support from local public and private entities. The President referred to it poignantly in his speech and the Title of the Act tended to signal something of this approach: “An Act to mobilize the human and financial resources of the Nation to combat poverty in the United States.”
"The EOA established over a thousand Community Action Agencies (CAA's) at the local level to implement Great Society programs through the national Office of Economic Opportunity. CAAs varied greatly, with some being nonprofit groups, some being city agencies, and some community-controlled groups. By 1968 there were over 1,600 CAA's covering two-thirds of the nation's counties. The EOA was notable in administrative terms because Congress bypassed state and local governments to fund community groups directly. This was one of the ways the federal government was able to bypass the southern states that often did not cooperate with federal law.” (Source: Wikipedia)
However, economic opportunity offices were also created at the level of state government as a means of involving the governors in Great Society poverty programs. Governors could veto inappropriate grants subject to override by OEO director Sargent Shriver, though the governors lacked the right of prior approval. It was not uncommon for southern governors to veto OEO grants only to be overridden by Shriver. In fact, Shriver overrode almost all vetoes.
The EOA required the poor to have "maximum feasible participation" in poverty program planning. CAAs sought participation by the poor by opening storefront and neighborhood centers. Such centers helped train a new generation of community activists and leaders. These individuals also were recruited into the ranks of federal poverty program administration. As this new power base developed, some mayors and other political leaders were threatened and successfully lobbied Congress to earmark new funds into "National Emphasis Programs" specified by Congress. The NEP requirements effectively undermined the discretion of CAA's to allocate funds.
The CAAs were also charged with developing local plans aimed at resolving local problems with local resources and community representatives, in addition to federal funding. In each of the local CAAs there was a Board mandated, and some CAAs made sure their Board had as members at least 50% who were living in poverty or representing those who were living in poverty. These were concepts that had been ignored in the past, but Johnson’s architects of this plan were educators and professionals who had studied the causes and effects of poverty. They knew the necessity of local involvement in funding, planning and implementation of the anti-poverty programs.
According to Wikipedia, the eleven major programs in the Act consisted of the following:
1. The Job Corps provides work, basic education, and training in separate residential centers for young men and young women, from ages sixteen to twenty-one.
2. Neighborhood Youth Corps provides work and training for young men and women, ages sixteen to twenty-one, from impoverished families and neighborhoods.
3. Work Study provides grants to colleges and universities for part-time employment of students from low-income families who need to earn money to pursue their education.
4. Urban and Rural Community Action provides financial and technical assistance to public and private nonprofit agencies for community action programs developed with "maximum feasible participation" of the poor and giving "promise of progress toward elimination of poverty."
5. Adult Basic Education provides grants to state educational agencies for programs of instruction for persons eighteen years and older whose inability to read and write English is an impediment to employment.
6. Voluntary Assistance for Needy Children establishes an information and coordination center to encourage voluntary assistance for deserving and needy children.
7. Loans to Rural Families provides loans not exceeding $2,500 that assist low income rural families in permanently increasing their income.
8. Assistance for Migrant Agricultural Employees provides assistance to state and local governments, public and private nonprofit agencies or individuals in operating programs to assist migratory workers and their families with basic needs.
9. Employment and Investment Incentives provides loans and guarantees, not in excess of $25,000 to a single borrower, for the benefit of very small businesses.
10. Work Experience provides payments for experimental, pilot, and demonstration projects to expand opportunities for work experience and needed training of persons who are unable to support or care for themselves or their families, including persons receiving public assistance.
11. Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) recruits, selects, trains, and refers volunteers to state or local agencies or private nonprofit organizations to perform duties to combat poverty.
In addition, there were some other programs that became familiar to many: Family Planning; Community Health Centers; Congregate Meal Preparation; Economic Development; Foster Grandparents; Legal Services; Neighborhood Centers; Summer Youth Programs; Senior Centers; and others.
By 1966, the entire program was under scrutiny from Republicans. They pointed out waste and inefficiency in local programs and Nixon pledged to "take the profit out of poverty." Notwithstanding, LBJ was proud of the progress he had made with the passage of his bill. Soon, however, funding that was for his poverty legislation got diverted to The Vietnam War. In 1967, Congress directed the Government Accountability Office (then General Accounting Office), to review anti-poverty programs. The conclusion reached was that programs such as Head Start were effective in providing for children, but the primary objective of parent participation was insufficient. Community Action Programs were behind administratively and underachieving given the amount of money designated. But, overall, the GAO determined that the poverty programs were working at the time.
The Green Amendment of 1967 stipulated that local elected officials had the authority to designate the official CAA for their areas. Only after such official recognition could the OEO fund a CAA. Similarly, the Quie Amendment of 1967 stipulated that one-third of CAA boards be composed of elected officials and another one-third be composed of private sector representatives, thereby limiting representation of the poor to a minority position (one-third). These two Amendments marked the dismantling of important concepts behind the CAAs.
Under the Nixon Administration, a number of OEO programs were transferred to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and to the Department of Labor. Later, after his 1972 reelection, Nixon's 1973 budget dropped funding for the Community Action Program of the OEO. He gave his appointed OEO director instructions to dismantle the agency. Court suits, however, forced the president to expend funds appropriated by Congress.
Under the Ford administration, the Community Services Amendments of 1974 terminated the OEO and created a replacement agency, the Community Services Administration (CSA). Many OEO employees simply changed places in local organizational charts. CAA's continued to be funded until 1981. New program thrusts included housing rehabilitation, home insulation, and environmental projects like solar greenhouses and community gardening. Under the Carter administration there was a concerted effort to strengthen local leadership within the CSA and CAA's, but it didn’t prevail.
The Community Services Block Grant (CSBD) was passed in 1981, under Ronald Reagan, rescinding the Economic Opportunity Act as well as the Green Amendment. However, CAAs recognized by the CSA were made eligible for CSBD funding. Funding was reduced under the Reagan administration as a new system of eight block grants consolidated some 200+ federal programs. In September, 1981, the CSA was abolished and 1,000 CSA employees were fired. Nonetheless, CAA's continued and in fact increased as a percentage of counties covered by CAA's (now estimated at 70%-80% of all U. S. counties). (Source: G. David Garson)
Some of the main features of the EOA still remained but were reconfigured and adjusted, such as Head Start, which is now under The Department of Education, and VISTA and other groups like the Older American Volunteer Programs that are now part of the Corporation for National Service. After the EOA was replaced by The Community Services Block Grant (CSBD), and direct funding changed to block grants, there were over 200 plus government agencies participating.
Unfortunately, the concept of local involvement and direct participation of those living in poverty went by the wayside, as did the concept of attempting to break the cycle of poverty. Instead there grew the idea that a "safety net" was what was necessary to provide temporary support to those who had special needs or circumstances and who needed a helping hand for a short time. More recently that has changed into a perverted sense that people who are poor or disabled must take full responsibility for their own lives and stop depending on government to provide for them because it creates dependency, a generation of takers, and a sense of privilege or entitlement. Gone is any sense of a war on poverty, or of any attempt to attack the roots of poverty. Instead, the radical Right-wing has been working overtime to eliminate the remnants of the Great Society programs altogether, and to blame the effects of poverty on the poor themselves.
As a former employee of a CAA from 1972-75, I believe there was a systematic elimination of certain anti-poverty concepts and programs that were crucial tools in the attack on the roots of Poverty. Not only was a "safety net" substituted for a War, but abatement of poverty's symptoms substituted for an all-out effort to break the cycle of poverty and the roots of its development. The de-funding and attempted elimination of the Legal Services Corporation as legal spokespersons for the poor in the early 1980s was an example. Apparently, it really got under the skin of many conservative politicians that the poor were able to litigate some of the problems they encountered from institutional racism fomented by Jim Crow laws. The lawyers in the Legal Services Corp., sponsored by the federal government, began to be seen largely as subversives, socialists, and minimally as community organizers like Saul Alinsky because of their activism on behalf of poor people. Conservative politicians, particularly from the South and other conservative states, wanted more than anything to shut down those Legal Aid "communist sympathizers." And they succeeded, starting with the Nixon administration.
In the 1960s and 1970s, according to Wikipedia, demand rose for the right of individuals to legally enforce economic, social and cultural rights and the welfare provisions to which they as individuals were entitled. Mechanisms emerged through which citizens could legally enforce those rights, and welfare lawyers used legal aid to advise those on low income when dealing with state officials.
In 1974, Congress created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to provide federal funding for civil (non-criminal) legal aid services. LSC's funding has fluctuated dramatically over the past three decades depending upon which political party was in control of Congress and the White House. For example, LSC suffered staggering funding cuts under former President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s (after he was unable to carry out his stated objective of abolishing LSC altogether). LSC funding flourished during the early years of President Bill Clinton's administration, but was severely cut again in 1995 after the Republican Party retook control of Congress.
In the 1980s, the role of the classic welfare state was no longer regarded as positive, and welfare was increasingly provided by private entities. Likewise, legal aid was increasingly provided through private providers who remained focused on assistance in court cases, or through administrative complaint processes. Tensions began to emerge as states emphasized individual enforcement of economic, social and cultural rights, rather than collective enforcement through policies. As a result, states reduced funding for legal aid.
Legal aid for civil cases is currently provided by a variety of public interest law firms and community legal clinics, which often have "legal aid" or "legal services" in their names. Such firms may impose income and resource ceilings as well as restrictions on the types of cases they will take, because there are always too many potential clients and not enough money to go around. Common types of cases include: denial or deprivation of government benefits, evictions, domestic violence, immigration status, and discrimination. Funding usually comes from charities, private donors, the federal government and some local and state governments. Most typical legal aid work involves counseling, informal negotiation, and appearances in administrative hearings, as opposed to formal litigation in the courts. However, the discovery of severe or recurring injustice with a large number of victims will sometimes justify the cost of large-scale impact litigation. Legal aid organizations that take LSC money tend to have more staff and services and can help more clients, but must also conform to strict government regulations that require careful timekeeping and prohibit lobbying and class actions. Many legal aid organizations refuse to take LSC money, and continue to file class actions and directly lobby legislatures on behalf of the poor. Many organizations that provide civil legal services are heavily dependent on interest from Lawyer Trust Accounts for funding.
However, even with supplemental funding from LSC, the total amount of legal aid available for civil cases is still grossly inadequate. According to LSC's widely released 2005 report "Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans", all legal aid offices nationwide, LSC-funded or not, are together able to meet only about 20 percent of the estimated legal needs of low-income people in the United States. Some commentators have suggested that mandatory pro bono obligations ought to be required of all lawyers. However, most such proposals have been successfully fought off by bar associations. Even where mandatory pro bono exists, funding for legal aid remains severely insufficient to provide assistance to a majority of those in need.
We come now to the new initiative announced by President Obama: Promise Zones. As USA Today reports, “Under the proposed Promise Zones, the federal government plans to partner with local governments and businesses to provide tax incentives and grants to help combat poverty. The project is part of the President's effort to address income inequality. In his State of the Union Address a year ago, President Obama said his administration planned 'to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet. We'll work with local leaders to target resources for public safety, and education, and housing'."
The “promise zone” plan aims to cut red tape and streamline federal funding from multiple government agencies to these specific zones. The Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Commerce Department, the Health and Human Services Department, the Justice Department, and the Department for Agriculture will all participate.
The administration is designating “promise zones” by looking for areas where local officials can make strategic, targeted investments. For instance, a “promise zone” may be interested in reducing violent crime with increased Justice Department funding for local law enforcement. Alternatively, a region may want to leverage Housing and Urban Development grants to attract private real estate investors to high-poverty neighborhoods. The president’s plan also includes tax credits for hiring workers and tax write-offs for capital investments within the “promise zones.” (CBS News)
Although this anti-poverty program was announced in connection with the 50-year anniversary of the War on Poverty unveiling by LBJ, it is not meant to be a War on Poverty, but it is, instead, an attempt to address the growing income inequality gap that shows its ugly visage in the chosen communities and areas. It does incorporate some important concepts from the War on Poverty, probably related more to community organizing than to anti-poverty. It will emphasize partnership with local level governments and businesses in order to leverage opportunities for those living in the communities. It will target a few roots of poverty such as education, housing, and public safety, but a major thrust will be tax credits for businesses that hire workers and that make investments in the development of the community and its members. Earlier, I identified two concepts that most conservatives attack: how do the poor (and possibly the disenfranchised) make their voices heard? Where are the citizen councils? Secondly, where is the legal aid to guide citizens through the labyrinth of local laws and regulations that may already be holding them back, or keeping them in “their place?” How does each chosen community organize to speak forcefully about what it wants to happen in the Promise Zones?
I think I know part of the answer. I think nothing will get done if the concepts that girded the War on Poverty are brought forward into this ideologically-flawed environment. Unfortunately, we may once again only nibble around the edges of the roots of poverty, but may hopefully make progress in bringing forth some hope and opportunity that does not now exist in these pockets of poverty and devastation.
That’s certainly more than we can expect from "Flex Funds," to be funded under block grants to the states, as Sen. Marco Rubio proposed. Deliver us from such Right-wing concretized approaches to everything. Block grants are nothing more than states rights’ grants meant to undermine the power and reach of federal government while serving to enhance the administrative costs of running states that are faltering under Republican welfare programs for the rich.
In my estimation, if Promise Zone legislation does not address the mandatory participation of those actually living in poverty, we must expect that there will be reactions -- demonstrations perhaps -- from those who are left out, along with confrontations with those who administer the funds. If free legal aid is not available to the low-income people living in these zones, they will have no other means to make their voices heard than by such confrontation. Promises made to help those in poverty, without the input of those living in poverty, are usually empty and ineffective. Those living in poverty must speak to power so that there voices will be heard, their concerns given credence, and their hopes realized.