Poor people organizing other poor people to take control of their future—that is what the original War on Poverty was about. Some of its early history points to a possible way to combat poverty now and in the future.
One of the most significant successes of the first years of the War on Poverty was the strong emphasis on organizing and empowering people in poor communities to take control of many aspects of their lives (education, job opportunities and training, crime control, health care, and legal issues, to name a few).
The original intent of the War on Poverty was not only to create safety net programs. It was to identify, train, and nurture the leaders and residents in low-income communities to mobilize and take control of their own destinies.
That kind of work was undertaken by local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) and it was so effective that it threatened the existing power structures.
One of the most dramatic images of successful organizing was in the late 1960s in Chicago, where I lived and worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity helping to administer funds for War on Poverty programs. At the time, garbage was picked up once per week by municipal crews. But if the weather was bad—not an unusual occurrence during winters in Chicago—garbage in the poorer neighborhoods was often not collected at all. Local community activists organized a protest, funded in part by War on Poverty community action agency grants. People brought their garbage bags downtown and left them on the sidewalk outside of City Hall. There were pictures in the papers and images on TV every day showing the growing piles of garbage outside of City Hall. It didn’t take long for the City to change its operation and make sure that everyone got their garbage picked up every week.
Other successful community organizing efforts throughout the country included:
- Rent strikes to demand sanitary, heated, and safe living conditions
- Migrant workers striking for improved living and work conditions
- Programs to enroll seniors in the newly established Medicare program, combat isolation, and promote access to regular meals
- Community-based mental health and substance abuse programs
- Job-readiness training programs
- Head Start programs which brought together families and the broader community to give children a better chance at success
Importantly, most of the people who led the organizing for these efforts were poor themselves and lived in the communities that they were trying to improve. They had very strong leadership qualities and were well-respected by local residents. The local CAAs hired them and they worked within the communities to identify barriers to economic opportunity and to empower local residents to overcome those barriers.
Unfortunately, the success of community organizing and empowerment was seen as a threat to both urban/liberal and rural/suburban/conservative elected officials at every level of government. Congressional members, fearing these new leaders as well as activism in poor communities, gutted funding for this crucial element of the War on Poverty starting in 1969.
What this history suggests is that combatting poverty now and in the future should once again be built around poor people organizing to address the challenges that they see their families and communities up against every day.
While government is unlikely to fund these kinds of efforts, non-partisan, private foundations should indeed support this type of grassroots organizing. If it works as well now as it did 50 years ago, it would force all of our elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, to listen to all of the people, not just those who have the money and organizational power to influence legislation.
And the country as a whole would benefit.