Conservatives have sabotaged the War on Poverty fiscally since its inception. They have also poisoned the water in terms of stoking racism, sexism, classism, and anti-government sentiment such that the American people have become increasingly hostile toward supporting programs that provide aid to the poor. On Sunday, January 12, I wrote about how conservatives led by Ronald Reagan tried to put an end to the War on Poverty and launch a War on the Poor in 1980 by dramatically cutting social programs. They continued dismantling the social safety net with the unfortunate cooperation of Democrats in 1994 as they pushed welfare reform which passed in 1996.
But, ending poverty is about far more than changing the income level of people who are lacking funds. Poverty is the result of differences in the power structure of a nation. It comes about as a function of inequality bred of discrimination, deliberate inequities in educational and employment opportunities, and the way society structures itself. The question becomes, “Is the nation a meritocracy where everyone has an equal chance to cultivate their talents and work toward success if they exert the necessary effort?” One of the things the poor took from Lyndon Johnson’s message about a War on Poverty was that they were going to be getting equal opportunities, an end to marginalization, and that their voices would be heard. However, the backlash against their push to be equal was immediate and absolute.
The series that PBS produced entitled, “America’s War on Poverty,” is stellar. One of the segments, “Given a Chance,” tells the story of Mississippi Head Start workers attempting to start their Head Start programs for the first time in 1965. They met with roadblock after roadblock. First, when they invited both poor white and poor black children, each was eager to participate. However, when the white families found out the black families were going to be attending, they dropped out. Then, Senator John Stennis, a segregationist Southern Democrat, heard rumors that Head Start workers were using program funds to *gasp* push for civil rights. Since this was several years prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, there was still a great deal of activism at this time. He demanded that an investigation be instigated, and in the meantime, funds would be pulled from his state’s Head Start programs. His demands were met, and just before children were to start school, every site lost funding. Of course, the rumors were false. Yes, the Head Start workers were agitating for Civil Rights. No, they were not using Head Start funds to do it. Undaunted, the Head Start workers put together volunteer donations of food and other supplies from the community and held their classes anyway. But, they couldn’t hold out forever. Eventually, they took busloads of children directly to Washington, DC to protest for reinstatement of their Head Start funds. The national embarrassment led Senator Stennis to relent and the programs were refunded. So, even a program as innocuous as Head Start was racialized and nearly undermined in one state. This is but one example of the headwinds anti-poverty activists faced when trying to institute grassroots change in local level social and power dynamics.
One dissertation by Ken Oldfield, “VISTA Program: Political Alteration of a Poverty Program,” later published in the Journal of Volunteer Administration, and exceptionally difficult to access, tells the story of how anti-poverty programs were quickly neutered even as they began. His own work focused on the defanging of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), which many of us know today as AmeriCorps. At its inception, the program was run by young college students, of course in the 1960s, a time of student radicalization. These students took the mandate of the War on Poverty seriously: maximum feasible participation (and leadership) by the poor. Alongside the poor, these volunteers were political, demanded change, and worked on behalf of the rights of poor people. Quickly, the leaders and power structure of various cities where VISTA volunteers protested and disrupted reacted in alarm. They did not care to see poor people making demands. They liked things just as they were. Very quickly, poor people were taken out of positions of power in VISTA and program administrators recruited retired people rather than young radical college students as volunteers. The goals of the program were transformed from systemic change like addressing slumlords and dangerous neighborhoods to teaching people how to read. While noble, it was easier to bog poor people down in their constant battle for literacy. Mastering the achievement gap would be a never-ending, attention-sucking goal, making radical and immediate changes to things like policing patterns in the ghetto, unsafe housing, or inferior schools a distant, unattainable vision to this day.
Community organizers have hundreds of tales of similar containment of the poor. The famous organizing “school” at Highlander, the notorious antics of Saul Alinsky, and the work of countless others was aimed at changing more than just how many dollars the poor had. They wanted to see the nation actually build a meritocracy. They wanted to ferret out injustice. Keeping the poor in their place became increasingly important in the 1970s. Recently, Igor Volsky at Think Progress wrote an excellent piece on how Republicans have fought against the war on poverty since its inception using racism, sexism, and anti-government rhetoric. In his article, he describes how Richard Nixon tried to blame race riots on the War on Poverty. This was no accident. He wanted to associate public protests with riots thereby neutering the power of the community organizers.
Today, we see remnants of the community organizing era that characterized the 1960s, and to a lesser extent, the 1970s. Conservatives have managed to marginalize their work by associating them with radicalization and belief systems that fall outside the mainstream. They continue to fear the power of an organized mass of poor people. The efforts to smear President Obama for being a community organizer are in keeping with this tradition. We may be seeing a renewed period of organizing centered on inequality. If so, it will represent a renewal of a true War on Poverty.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.