Happy 47th Birthday, You Old Economic Opportunity Act, You!

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economic opportunity act

Born in 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) came into being just as the oldest Baby Boomers were graduating from high school and the first Generation X’ers were toddling around in diapers. In a way, the Economic Opportunity Act is the connective glue of these two generations of nonprofit leaders and nonprofit organizations, at least those believing in and committed to social and economic equity. Despite the “points of light” image of a nonprofit sector driven by individual charitably minded volunteers and donors, much of today’s human-service nonprofit infrastructure owes its existence to its Great Society parentage in the EOA.

The Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty was largely launched through the Economic Opportunity Act legislation. The EOA encountered staunch opposition from entrenched interests inside and outside of government from the very beginning, whittling the program down over the years. For those of us boomers who were products of the War on Poverty, we remember the strange travails of the EOA and the Office of Economic Opportunity that it created. Sometimes it seems amazing how much of the program infrastructure survives, though various programs have endured near-death experiences at the hands of Republican and Democratic overseers. 

We remember an amendment proposed in 1970 or 1971 by Congressman John Brademas (D-Indiana) that would have created or expanded child care services for women on welfare, enabling them to go to school or take jobs. At the time, respected conservative pundit James J. Kirkpatrick published a broadside against the program declaring it “Soviet” and that it aimed to “mold U.S. children.” Of course, other conservatives were not quite so averse to the program’s socialistic tendencies. In fact, Ronald Reagan somehow singled out the EOA-created Head Start program as a piece of the legislation that he would have supported and continued, although his administration tried to limit kids’ Head Start participation to one year.

Or how about the 1969 Congressional amendments aimed at weakening the Act? President Nixon’s anti-poverty chief, a much younger Donald Rumsfeld, defended the EOA, claiming that the legislation would “cripple” the Office of Economic Opportunity—even though as a Congressman, Rumsfeld had voted against the Economic Opportunity Act. Who would have ever thought that Rumsfeld would migrate from anti-poverty work to directing the U.S. invasion of Iraq? On Rumsfeld’s OEO staff was a young Dick Cheney. Later, as a five-term Republican Congressman from Wyoming, Cheney voted against Head Start appropriations, though in 2000 he said he felt differently about this key EOA program component and would have voted for it. 

The EOA legislation President Johnson signed contained less than $1 billion for the nation’s anti-poverty efforts. The legislation was hardly the massive commitment of funds that critics have alleged, and the funding that was needed to truly succeed in a war against poverty was sapped by the demands of the nation’s other focus at the time, the rapidly increasing commitment to an unwinnable war in Indochina. But from that relatively small financial investment, the Economic Opportunity Act left the nonprofit sector with some of its most essential programmatic and organizational infrastructure:

VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America)This program was reportedly President Johnson’s favorite of all of his anti-poverty initiatives. He told the first 20 VISTA workers, “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man.”

Some experts trace the growth of the modern nonprofit sector to the civil rights movement and the legislation and court decisions that led to “the right to pursue legal causes through nonprofit activity and advocacy” as it was put a recent report (PDF of executive summary) by the Association for Research in Nonprofit Organization and Voluntary Action. Although the current descriptions of VISTA on the website of the Corporation for National and Community Service make it seem like it was something of a forerunner of AmeriCorps and its generic community-service stipended-volunteerism approach, VISTA was formulated and operationalized at its outset as an organizing effort aimed at redressing social and economic inequities. In its first year, 2,000 VISTA workers were on the ground in Appalachian coal mining hollows, California migrant labor camps, and inner-city Hartford neighborhoods. Before being stripped of its core function by the Clinton and Bush I administrations, VISTA possessed an advocacy orientation that reflected the lessons of the civil rights movement, in particular the recognition that community organizing was required to buck entrenched political and economic interests that wanted to preserve the status quo.

This was not a theoretical matter. In June 1964, before VISTA’s actual start-up in 1965, three “Freedom Summer” civil rights workers—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—were viciously beaten and murdered in Nashoba County, Mississippi. Within weeks, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and one month later, the Economic Opportunity Act. For some of us of that era, it is hard to match up today’s emasculated AmeriCorps VISTA service program with the VISTA that followed on the heels of a defining moment of the civil rights movement.

There are now more than 170,000 VISTA “alumni” bringing their anti-poverty organizing and advocacy experience to the nonprofit, government, and for-profit sectors. The Corporation for National and Community Service says that there are currently 6,500 VISTA “members” working on 1,200 projects across the nation. It may not be an easy fit within the current version of national service that originated in the Clinton Administration and was further massaged by the subsequent Bush and Obama administrations. Robert Kuttner wrote in 1993 that “VISTA had its origins in the anti-poverty program of the 1960s. If New Democrat Bill Clinton’s conception of national service was polite, universal and middle class, VISTA seemed to smack of class warfare, anti-poverty, and ‘old Democrats.’” It’s probably good for President Clinton’s signature program, AmeriCorps, that there is still a component tied to an anti-poverty commitment.

– Head StartDespite the recent debates over the flurry of research results suggesting that the long term effects of Head Start are not hugely robust (see the 2010 Head Start Impact Study by the HHS Administration for Children and Families for some mixed results), there are millions of low-income families who swear by Head Start and what it has meant to their children and their families. More than 1,590 agencies are Head Start grantees, ranging in size from small single-site centers to multiple-site programs in large cities. It’s hard to imagine how few people don’t know about Head Start—or how many people wish their kids could participate in Head Start programs. But do people remember that Head Start started in 1965 as an eight-week summer program for kids who were going to start public school that fall?

Originally thought of as a “Kiddie Corps” or “Baby Corps,” Head Start was much more than a preschool program for poor families. In addition to education, Head Start offered medical care, dental care, and mental-health care even during that first summer of operations, serving 561,000 children on a national budget of $96.4 million. More than 27 million children have passed through Head Start programs since that time. Roughly 900,000 have been enrolled annually since 2000.

Just about all Gen X’ers and Millennials have been affected by Head Start—but most don’t know it. In 1968, Head Start provided funding, in conjunction with the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, for a children’s television program that premiered on public television stations in 1969 and eventually became known as “Sesame Street.”

– Legal ServicesAlthough the Legal Services Corporation emerged later, the Office of Economic Opportunity created the Neighborhood Legal Services Program to support programs around the nation providing legal representation to poor people in civil cases. Controversially, legal services lawyers often took on class action cases and even sued public officials.

The Economic Opportunity Act didn’t expressly provide for the creation of a legal services program component, but OEO saw the need for legal services for the poor as part of a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy. In 1966, there were 130 legal services programs getting OEO funding; by 1968 the number had doubled to 260 programs. The program designers also recognized the need for a network of supporting programs backing up local legal service agencies, such as a national information clearinghouse as well as legal services programs focused on topics such as housing and employment. Presciently, OEO’s legal services effort was based on a now-common understanding of how to strengthen nonprofits by linking them together with sources of technical and financial expertise in distributed networks.

Of course, political interests opposing the legal empowerment of the poor were none too happy with these legal services programs. Reagan might have been sort of fond of Head Start, but he was no fan of legal services. He provoked a crisis when as governor of California he vetoed a grant for California Rural Legal Services. The Nixon Administration eventually appointed Howard Phillips to dismantle much of the infrastructure created by the EOA, including OEO’s legal services programs, by converting the funding to block grants to the states. In a compromise, legal services programs were removed from OEO in 1974 and transferred to an independent Legal Services Corporation, which today provides funding to 136 nonprofit legal services programs around the country, a crucial component of today’s nonprofit infrastructure serving the poor.

– Job Corps: The problems of youth unemployment are longstanding, but they have been worse during the current recession than at any time since perhaps the Great Depression. The numbers tell the story: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor-force participation rate for all young people age 16 to 24, that is, all young people working or looking for work, fell to 59.5 percent in July, the lowest July rate ever. Only 48.8 percent of the 16-to-24-year-old civilian noninstitutional population is employed, the lowest rate on record. The youth unemployment rate in July was 18.1 percent—20.1 percent for young Hispanics and 31.0 percent for young African-Americans.

How much worse would these numbers be were it not for the existence of the Job Corps, one of the EOA components most strongly supported by President Johnson? The model for the Job Corps was the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided room, board, job training, and employment to thousands of unemployed young people. Since its creation in 1965, there have been close to three million young people who have lived, trained, and worked at Job Corps sites. There are currently about 125 Job Corps sites around the country providing training and vocational employment to about 60,000 young people per year.

– Community Action Program: The animus of so many people toward the anti-poverty agenda of the 1960s had little to do with its $1 billion budget or the particular program initiatives that it funded. It was politics. Empowerment of lower-income people, frequently African American or Latino, usually led to a power struggle between the minority leadership of anti-poverty agencies and the typically white power structure of local governments that felt threatened by competing sources of influence and control. At the nexus of these battles one could often find a federally-funded Community Action agency.

At one time, there were some 1,600 Community Action agencies around the country. About 1,100 still exist, operating a variety of programs, many funded by the remnants of EOA’s core program funding, since renamed the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG). Therein lies the problem. As NPQ has reported here, here, here, and here, President Obama blindsided community action agencies by calling for slicing the CSBG budget in half as his sacrifice to Congressional critics of this longstanding anti-poverty program supported by Democrats.

After playing crucial roles in the implementation of core parts of the federal stimulus—particularly the weatherization component, consistently one of the best job creators in the entire stimulus package—Community Action agencies should realize that they have to see themselves not simply as a product of the War on Poverty, but a crucial piece of the nonprofit infrastructure.

Special Impact Program: Although not an original component of the EOA, the Special Impact Program was a 1966 amendment to the Act and emerged from the efforts of New York Senators Robert Kennedy and Jacob Javits to create a truly place-based mode of community action. Some of the nation’s oldest and best-known community development corporations (CDCs) started as SIP organizations: the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU), Chicanos por la Causa (CPLC), the Mexican American Unity Council, Harlem Commonwealth Council, Spanish Speaking Unity Council, and others. Many of the 50 original SIP CDCs, including the recently collapsed Eastside Community Investments in Indianapolis, do not exist any longer, but they helped spawn and bolster an industry of well over 3,000 CDCs across the nation.

Community Health Centers: Neighborhood health clinics for the poor were also a creation of the Economic Opportunity Act. The first ones were demonstration projects in Boston (the Columbia Point Health Center, located in a public housing project) and Mound Bayou, Mississippi (the Delta Health Center). By the early 1970s, they were moved from OEO to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW, now renamed Health and Human Services). There are now more than 1,100 CHCs, and like community action agencies, legal services corporations, and Head Start agencies, they are hardly dinosaurs. In fact, the number of community health centers today is almost 50 percent larger than it was in 2003. Program funding for community health centers falls under Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act (which is why many federally qualified health centers are called “330 grantees”) and gives this swath of nonprofit organizational descendants of the Economic Opportunity Act significant responsibilities as health care reform begins to take hold. The current Surgeon General of the United States, Regina Benjamin, is actually a CHC product; she was the founder and former CEO of the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama.

When it comes to the services needed by the poor, the array of nonprofits with origins in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 is the first port of call. In an era when our national leaders are unable to even utter the words “poverty” or “the poor,” this infrastructure of nonprofit organizations and nonprofit leaders keeps America’s feet to the fire—supporting people and communities most in need, particularly those who don’t quite fit the apolitical “middle class” moniker. Moreover, these anti-poverty nonprofits work in partnership with other nonprofits in their communities, adding an element of social and economic equity to the human services work of other groups. And unlike the increasingly bland, narrow conception of nonprofits as just human-service providers, these nonprofits tie advocacy and organizing into their service delivery programs. That may be why legal services groups and community action agencies earn so much opprobrium from the economic and political forces they confront—and why that combination of functions is so essential to maintain.

Howard Phillips, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and others have tried mightily to dismantle the EOA’s creation of a nonprofit sector dedicated to fighting poverty. They moved OEO programs to other agencies, combined and separated funding streams, and at times watched idly as the War in Indochina starved the War on Poverty in the U.S. of needed resources. But fighting with and for the poor is always a risky business, never more so than now when rolling budget cuts are threatening the survival of whole swaths of nonprofit capacity.

President Obama’s willingness to sacrifice the Community Services Block Grant program, regardless of its impact on community action agencies, is simply one indication of a sometimes bipartisan openness to removing essential bricks from the nonprofit anti-poverty edifice. Money designated in the Affordable Care Act for expansion of community health centers has already been cut and more cuts are on the way in the context of budget reform. These federal cuts have been more than matched by state agencies deciding that they cannot or will not fund community health centers the way they did before. Earlier this year, the Republican-dominated House slashed $2 billion from President Obama’s $8.2 billion Head Start funding request.

Today, there may not be a single person given the charge of pulling down the nation’s nonprofit anti-poverty infrastructure, like Howard Phillips during the Nixon Administration (he actually resigned in frustration when he failed to undo the Great Society’s anti-poverty apparatus). However, there are multiple points of pressure on these federally funded nonprofits. The political opponents of empowering the poor are armed with cleavers aimed at social programs under the guise of balancing the federal budget and controlling the federal debt. 

The challenge is for the Baby Boomers still in the nonprofit sector and the Gen X’ers now assuming leadership positions to fight to maintain and strengthen the anti-poverty wing of the nonprofit infrastructure. The 47-year-old Economic Opportunity Act may have been born on the cusp of two generations, but it represents the part of the nonprofit sector that fights for social justice for all generations. 

  • D. J. Smith

    Shaking my head in disbelief. Good thing that after 47 years and billions spent, we actually have something to show for it! (Tongue firmly planted in cheek….) How do you explain that poverty is more out of control then ever before AND….all dignity has been taken away from those ‘benefiting’ from the EOA? Equal Opportunity for organizations milking the Federal tit. Nice work if you can get it. For the record, the non-profit I direct takes NO GOVERNMENT MONEY yet we have assisted/changed lives for over 40 years. It is times and articles like these that make me think perhaps I am in the wrong line of work.

  • JT

    As a Millennial, I really appreciated the context provided in this discussion of the EOA of 1964 and its legacy. It

  • AK Andrew

    “How do you explain that poverty is more out of control then ever before..” The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It

  • Denise L Harlow

    Thank you, Rick and NPQ for posting such a thoughtful and extensive piece on the Economic Opportunity Act, an important piece of our history as a nation and as a sector.



    We will do all we can to share this article. What it seems is that people ignore the history of a movement to address poverty in almost every one of it’s dimensions. If this message does not deter the negative judgement, maybe we have failed in our efforts after all.

  • Jim Masters

    Thanks Rick. A useful summary. Virtually ALL of the 23 strategies listed by LBJ in his January 20, 1964 State of the Union speech, and ALL of the 9 additional strategies put into the EOA of 1964 are still in existence. There is a paper “Why Comparing the War on Poverty and Wefare Reform Won’t Work” up on my website at http://www.cencomfut.com
    P.S. Good to see your name again!

  • Ben M.

    I would very much like to hear what type of non-profit it is you direct and how you go about “changing lives” and what meets that definition for you. Your reluctance to share this information upfront seems ironically circumspect to me. If you’ve got it figured out… share with the rest of the group.
    I am all for accountability and cutting costs in government… provided everyone is held accountable and everyone is required to take a hit. I doubt you will find a single Community Action Agency that is led by rational people who would be crying “foul” if every departmental line-item in the federal budget was told to cut 10%. As a government contractor, no different than Boeing, GE or Pratt & Whitney, I look forward to seeing how ALL government contractors will be expected to tighten their belts, not just some of them.
    Your thoughts also conveniently neglect the capacity building/leveraging potential of CSBG. The small amount of CSBG funding my employer gets allows us to leverage and mobilize an average of 15 to 25 times the CSBG grant’s value in PRIVATE funding on an annual basis.
    Poverty, like most social problems, are very complex issues and cannot be uniformly or quickly mitigated and eliminated. Community Action is about bringing about changes that are measured in generations, not political election cycles.
    Community Action Agencies are not perfect, but the sarcasm in your post adds nothing to the discussion about a meaningful course of action, or alternative path, towards accomplishing the same goals. Perhaps you are in the wrong line of work…

  • rick cohen

    Pretty amazing history, no? But isn’t it striking that with this legacy of the EOA to the nonprofit sector infrastructure as we know it today, I didn’t see one article on the mainstream philanthropic or nonprofit sites that gave a whit of attention to this anniversary? What’s wrong with this picture?