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Hidden History: The War on Poverty at 50

Despite mass media attention to the War on Poverty at 50, its centerpiece, the Community Action Program, is ignored.

The day President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act, August 20, 1964. (Photo: LBJ Library via Wikimedia Commons)

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Despite mass media attention to the War on Poverty at 50, its centerpiece, the Community Action Program, is ignored. Thus an important story – how the poor were empowered then cast aside – is lost.

Who controls the past controls the future;
who controls the present controls the past.
– George Orwell, 1984

In the totalitarian world of 1984, Winston Smith was assigned the job of changing news accounts of past events so the total rule of the Party could never be challenged by facts that contradicted Big Brother’s propaganda. Control of the past isn’t quite so total in the United States, but to read about the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty” in the American press is to appreciate how significantly history is rewritten in this country, how information that doesn’t square with the interests and propaganda of elites has disappeared down the “black hole” of memory.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty” in his first State of the Union address. The centerpiece of the poverty program was passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, which featured most prominently the Community Action Program (CAP) and the Job Corps. The long-invisible history of empowerment, struggle and ultimately defeat and abandonment of America’s poor under CAP contains powerful lessons of hope and despair that Americans need to understand. That hidden history holds important lessons about both the possibility and erosion of democracy in America.

In signing the Economic Opportunity Act, Johnson boldly proclaimed, “Today for the first time in the history of the human race, a great nation is able to make and is willing to make a commitment to eradicate poverty among its people.” CAP provided federal funding for projects designed to improve the lives and communities of America’s poor. The aim, according to the government’s Community Action Handbook, was to empower the poor. The novel feature of the program was that local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) that would petition the government for grants would be created with the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor themselves.

That phrase, of course, meant different things to different people. In a number of cities – notably Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta – mayors retained control over membership of the CAAs, and thus federal grants provided funds for the mayors’ agendas as well as additional patronage jobs – i.e., government as usual. In long-time community organizer Saul Alinsky’s critique, this meant empowering “positive” community leaders (those who would “do as city hall says”) as opposed to “negative” community leaders (those whose “primary loyalty is to the people of your community”).

But in other locales – notably New York’s Harlem; San Francisco; Syracuse, New York; and Newark, New Jersey – the CAAs were largely made up of local activists, advocates for the poor and the poor themselves. In these cities, federal funds were used to organize the poor to apply political pressure on behalf of their own interests. With a rising sense of hope that things could change, the poor joined in making a variety of demands on city governments, police departments, potential employers and welfare offices.

The Newark case is instructive (and is well-documented in the PBS film America’s War on Poverty: City of Promise – the source of quotes that follow). As one Newark resident commented, “Never in the history of this country had you ever seen the federal government saying to people in the community, ‘You can have as much participation in this as you want, and you can change your own destiny.’ And people believed this. People who I had never seen out before – housewives dragging their kids off to meetings – because they really believed that they were participants in a structure that was going to better their lives.” Their sense of empowerment was the first step toward a democracy that included the poor for the first time.

Yet while the community was beginning to feel empowered, others had a different view. Newark officials believed the community action program “distorted democracy” in their view because it empowered “neighborhood participatory groups” rather than elected officials. The mostly Democratic mayors complained to the Johnson administration that CAP was being administered by staffers who did not understand the way local politics worked; budgeted funds were denied, new programs were vetoed and job training programs ran up against a closed job market. Political and economic elites were taking the first steps toward abandoning the inner cities.

As hopeful expectations were being dashed in the heady days of the mid-1960s, incidents of police brutality against inner-city populations provided the spark that ignited spontaneous outbursts of collective rage – what were commonly called the “riots” and “long, hot summers” of the 1960s – Harlem, Watts, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark and Detroit, among many others. Political reaction was spurred by politicians from Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1966 to George Wallace and Richard Nixon in 1968 – all playing on understandable fears and resentments in their various campaigns. For its part, the Johnson administration shifted control of CAAs to city hall. The old New Deal coalition of the Democratic majority fractured as the white South and what were later called “Reagan Democrats” turned to the Republican Party. The Office of Economic Opportunity, created to oversee the poverty program, was eliminated by the Nixon administration. As corporate money also turned against the turbulent ’60s and Great Society liberalism, the Democrats veered into the safe and well-financed center.

Not coincidentally, in the aftermath of the 1992 riot in South Central Los Angeles, mass media discourse was dominated by a debate between two urban policy paradigms: the Lyndon Johnson Great Society and the Reagan-Bush market-based approach of “enterprise zones” (reflecting the Nixon-era “benign neglect”). In a Lexis-Nexis search of mass-media articles, there was but a single, brief mention of the Community Action Program. By that time, the mobilizing-the-poor potential of CAP already had disappeared into the black hole of public memory.

Each step along the way was a nail in the coffin of America’s “commitment” to end poverty. Along with additional Great Society legislation and a much more equal economy than we have today, the actual war on poverty helped to sharply reduce the number of poor Americans – for a while. Amendments to the Social Security system have continued to maintain relatively low levels of poverty among older Americans. But the turn away from the initial War on Poverty and subsequent attacks on a host of poverty-linked programs – to say nothing of the belief that government can be used to meet the needs of the people – have produced millions more Americans living in poverty, cost thousands of family-supporting manufacturing jobs, shrunk the middle class and resulted in obscene wealth and political control amassed in the hands of a fraction of 1% of Americans. In addition, poverty levels among blacks and Latinos are nearly three times those of white Americans.

Yet, as the mass media revisit the “war on poverty” 50 years later, the history of the Community Action Program is invisible. Instead, the mainstream media seem intent on evaluating the impact of “50 years” of a war on poverty as if it had been going on ever since 1964. The dominant media frame has been shaped by a long-standing right-wing propaganda campaign to the effect that that “trillions” of federal dollars have been spent trying to eliminate poverty. This Big Lie incorporates unrelated and universal programs like Social Security and Medicare as part of the alleged “war on poverty.” Thus, they suggest, because more people are poor today, the war on poverty failed and government programs cannot work.

Thus, for example a USA Today headline (January 30, 2014) speaks of “Uneven Gains for States after 50 Years of the War on Poverty” (emphasis added). Meanwhile, in liberal and conservative news outlets, the debate rages: On one side, our safety net programs have prevented millions of Americans from falling below the poverty line, so we need to do more to shore them up; on the other, “trillions” have been spent without reducing poverty, so we should abandon federal efforts and let the states manage their own affairs. Neither, of course, will achieve the promise of the war on poverty, although targeted federal programs and job stimuli would help. But both types of arguments are put forth by privileged Americans.

The genius of the original Community Action Program was that it put some power into the hands of the poor themselves so they would become political citizens like everyone else. That is an important start. Political participation is a learning process. One lesson from the community action experience was that activism by the poor revealed broader political and economic changes that needed to be addressed instead of ignored.

So what can we learn from this hidden history? First, community organizing of the poor is crucial, and resources for that community organizing are extremely important. In fact, this is the good news, because community organizing efforts have been spreading all over the nation. Second, while the awakening of hope among the poor is essential and a conscious aim of community organizing, the latter, by itself, is severely limited by wider and more structural political and economic impediments, as it was in the 1960s. Politically, then, the role of organizer needs to include an educative element raising participants’ consciousness of connections between local conditions and wider political and economic impediments. And local organizing efforts must (as they often do) build networks of relationships with other communities and activist groups; ultimately these networks point toward the formation of a progressive political party, in whatever form that may take.

Economically, organizing the poor needs to connect with other victims of class inequality in America across a range of issues. Community action briefly provided an ideological counterweight to the propaganda attacks on the poor as recipients of government largesse. Thus organizing the poor contains the potential to reach across contemporary political divides to generate greater class solidarity. Obviously, too, for educators and writers, exposing the empowering history of the initial community action program, to say nothing of powerful movements like civil rights, is important if we are to raise the consciousness of many more of our young.

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