The History of Community Action Agencies (CAAs): LBJ Launches The War on Poverty

On March 16, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a special message to  Congress declaring “an unconditional war” on poverty.

Johnson asked Congress to pass his Economic Opportunity Act, which would create the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) as a cabinet-level agency and have his Chief of Staff, Sargent Shriver, as its first director.

Johnson’s OEO included the creation of Community Action Agencies (CAAs) to “strike poverty at its source -- in the streets of our cities and on the farms of our countryside…”

Johnson’s proposal also created the Job Corps, Work-Training, and Work Study programs, legal services, and Head Start.


The History of Community Action Agencies (CAAs): The War on Poverty’s First Point Man: Sargent Shriver

During his remarks before the International Association of Machinists, Miami, Fla., Sept. 11, 1964, Shriver made four points about the War on Poverty:

 1. The working man isn’t rich, but the really poor of our nation, those trying to make it on $30 a week or less, are truly in trouble. We can’t ignore them any longer.

2. The War on Poverty is about creating jobs, not stealing them.

3. The War on Poverty is about earning your way, not “giving out doles to the poor.”

4. The poor are poor not because they are “lazy and shiftless” but because one-third are old and on fixed incomes and another one-third are young and unable to change their circumstances.


The History of Community Action Agencies (CAAs): 1964 - 1973: Early Progress

The Economic Opportunity Act was adopted in 1964. The poverty rate (income based) that year was 19 percent.

With the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity and President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,”  by 1973 the poverty rate had dropped to 11.1 percent, a 7.9 percent decrease in just 10 years and the lowest it would be during the period 1959-2004.

Many experts predicted the eradication of poverty by 1980, assuming 1960s economic growth patterns continued. They didn’t, highlighted by the oil embargo and “stagflation” of the 1970s, followed by a real-dollars decrease in federal funds and a consistently inconsistent economy (1980 through today).


The History of Community Action Agencies (CAAs): Transitions

By 1969, the OEO had started several programs recognizable today, including Head Start, Legal Services, VISTA, Foster Grandparents, Economic Development, Neighborhood Centers, Summer Youth Programs, and Congregate Meal Sites.

However, in 1973, President Richard Nixon tried to abolish the OEO, having already transferred much of the OEO’s authority to other federal agencies. However, Congress stepped in and saved the OEO.

Nixon then directed his pick to head the agency, Howard Phillips, to raze it and not to spend the money Congress had allocated.

The Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. ruled that Nixon could not refuse to spend funds allocated by the Congress.  


The History of Community Action Agencies (CAAs): Missed Opportunities: 1977 - 1981

Many working in the poverty field saw the election of Jimmy Carter as an opportunity to return to the strides made through 1973 that had actually reduced poverty.

However, Carter’s relationship with the Congress, controlled by his party and willing to positively move on poverty issues, was often strained partly because Carter, concerned about a souring economy and the deficits that might result from additional spending, wouldn’t commit to allocating the resources necessary to meaningfully address poverty.

The souring economy was especially tough on the nation’s poor, and by 1983 the poverty rate was up to 15.2% from 11.1% in 1973 (which was the low for the period 1959-2004).


The History of Community Action Agencies (CAAs): “Revolutionary” Changes: 1981 - 1993

The “Reagan Revolution” of 1980 led to the election of a conservative president and Congress.

Reagan promised to significantly reduce the role the federal government played in national anti-poverty efforts.

Reagan famously said that this nation fought a war on poverty -- and poverty won.

The Community Services Administration, which had replaced the Office of Economic Opportunity in the 1970s, was disbanded and direct grants to CAAs were replaced with competitive block grants.

By 1993 the poverty rate had remained virtually unchanged at 15.1%, a 0.1% decrease from 1983.


The History of Community Action Agencies (CAAs): Addition By Subtraction : 1993 - 2008

President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare to Work bill, a response to public perceptions about waste, fraud and disincentives to work, and began to transition welfare recipients to work -- some said too quickly.

President George W. Bush, promising “Compassionate Conservatism,” returned to the policies of Reagan and his father, George H.W. Bush. Congress once again stepped in to save the CAAs.

The poverty rate for the period 1993 to 2004 first declined, from 15.1% in 1993 to 11.3% in 2000, then increased to 12.7% by 2004. The 2008 poverty rate was 13.2%.


The History of Community Action Agencies (CAAs): Yes We Can! But Will We?: 2009 and Beyond

The elections of 2008 brought a Democratic president and Congress to power to address the worst economic crisis the nation had faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

One of President Barack Obama’s first acts to help those fighting poverty was signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided nearly $800 billion in additional federal funds to create and save jobs, spur economic activity and invest in long-term economic growth, including providing more money to the CSBG, Head Start and the Weatherization Assistance Program.

HHS funding increased 27% from 2009 - 2010 (counting ARRA funds) and 33% from 2006 - 2010.


Mike Bell, Office Assistant, Community Action, Inc.