This is the 50th year of the establishment of the War on Poverty. I was there at its birth and throughout its fateful history. But you would never know from the liberal press that it failed. Recently, the New York Times gave a mixed review to our progress in eliminating poverty. Their analysis: It has been kept in check through transfer payments and in-kind government supports. Let’s be clear from the outset -- the War on Poverty never envisioned lifting people out of poverty by giving them the income and supports to survive. It was based on giving them the skills and opportunity to work. Jobs, pure and simple, were the goal to take people from dependence to independence. The solution to want was work, not welfare. “A hand up, not a hand out,” LBJ exclaimed.
So while, yes, the poverty rates would be much higher without the largesse we have loaded onto the poor, it has been done at the expense of helping the poor to work. I was there, and welfare was not the primary strategy. In fact, AFDC was a relatively small program. It became the major support of mostly single mothers only when the welfare rights movement began in the 70s. That movement meant to break the back of the government by flooding the rolls with people who had avoided dependence. It did not bring government to its knees, but it succeeded in increasing the welfare rolls by millions as the decades went on.
What were the programs proposed by Lyndon Johnson that envisioned an America without poor people? They included not one program that transferred wealth from one slice of society to another to reduce poverty. They were job programs, education and skill training and legal help to gain access to housing and jobs. These included Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA), Job Corps, Head Start, GED programs, and Community Action Agencies to bring the poor, with programs they helped design, into the mainstream. Whether these were the right strategies -- and I now have my doubts -- they did not include trillions for a bailout to help people stay self-sufficient. For us now to say the War on Poverty was a success because we handed out the financial resources to alleviate poverty is a gross misunderstanding of the war in order to support the conclusion the war was at least in part won.
I took the first proposal from New York City to D.C., applying to The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and having it signed at 3 a.m. by Deputy Mayor Julius C.C. Edelstein at City Hall. Having helped write that massive document, I was a true believer that we would win the war with the programs for which we were asking funds. Looking through the back-end of the telescope, boy were we wrong. Why? We expected two strategies to work. First, that education and training would get people into jobs. Second, that what was called maximum feasible participation would together solve the intractable problem of a needy class.
The first mistake was to believe that raising human capital in and of itself would help people get work. As this country found, addressing welfare dependency through education and training failed miserably and led to the 1996 welfare reform, which put work first and helped reduced the welfare caseload by over 60 percent in 12 years.
As for maximum feasible participation, the notion was the poor knew best what they needed for programs and that they should run them. Spurred on by policy planners in D.C., they designed a process that bypassed the legitimate political structures and funneled the money directly into community groups hungry for federal funds. Even though LBJ said, “I’d rather give the money to Mayor Daley than the Urban League,” the pressures of the Vietnam War diverted his attention and the policy galloped ahead with little or no control over the quality of the programs.
Simultaneously, with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills, local civil rights activists were left with little to fight for. But here came this truckload of money into their communities, and they immediately employed the strategies and tactics of the civil rights movement to divert the money into their pet agencies, regardless of the quality. I remember working in my City Hall office in 1986. I was responsible for approving grants to local agencies. My door burst open and a group of Harlem advocates yelled, “Are you Peter Cove?” I said yes, and they said, "Well, you did not approve our proposal, and we will sit in until you do." Led by the newly minted civil rights activist Major Owens, they sat down and refused to move. I said something unprintable and left, which they did after a bit.
What we see here is a perfect example of civil rights actions being applied to a poverty program. Those strategies were appropriate in fighting discrimination, since it was a government-initiated and sanctioned policy. But poverty is not. And the application of the tactics sunk any hope of quality programs emerging from the War on Poverty. The applied tactics of civil disobedience has mau-maued the local authorities into diverting trillions of dollars over the years to incompetent deliverers. The poverty program was upended by the perfect storm of D.C. policy planners wanting maximum feasible participation and eager civil-rights activists lying in wait for the avalanche of dollars.
To see how both of these undermined the war, just look at Head Start, which put the responsibility of educating in the hands of community groups unprepared for this while circumventing the traditional public educational systems. While there may have been some arguments for this, particularly in the South, the effect was to grow a program which even now the government admits the students lose most gains after the first year.
We cannot sit here in the 50th year of the War on Poverty and deny it failed to do the one thing that would have made it a success -- get people working. Our job as a country is to now get the poor into jobs. Let’s stop bailing out poverty.