September 23, 2015; Al Jazeera America

To rely on the mainstream press coverage of the anti-poverty sector of nonprofits, one might reasonably think that there is none, that the War on Poverty and the community action agencies spawned half a century ago no longer exist except as historical artifacts in the LBJ museum.  To the contrary, there are over 1,000 community action agencies across the nation providing vital services to low-income individuals and families in rural and urban communities.  Their ongoing stories don’t seem to fit the nation’s dominant narrative of a focus on the middle-class and a studious avoidance of “poor” and “poverty” in the political lexicons of almost all politicians.

Maybe the press doesn’t get the fact that community action agencies, dedicated to serving the poor and very poor, have to be entrepreneurial, creative, and politically adept to survive and function in environments that tend to be hostile or worse to poor people.  For example, in Bloomington, Illinois, the state’s long-running budget stalemate has compelled Mid Central Community Action to scale down or even temporarily suspend programs such as LIHEAP utility assistance payments, home weatherization services, and staff services as MCCA programs such as its domestic violence shelter,  but MCCA is trying to maintain service delivery to the very needy.  Like many of the significant and valued community action agencies in the nation, MCCA serves the small town and rural communities of McLean and Livingston counties, located between the cities of Peoria and Kankakee.  Without rural community action agencies like MCCA, residents of many rural parts of the U.S. would be hard-pressed to access vital human services.

The cuts in community action agency budgets have origins long before present-day state budget imbroglios.  In Kentucky, for example, Community Action of Southern Kentucky has been dealing with financial cutbacks since the recession in 2007 and 2008.  Although its finances have improved, the agency is still not back to the level of services that it was able to provide before the recession.  For most community action agencies, the challenges they face have only expanded, particularly since the recession when many more people than just the very low income lost jobs and homes.  “A few years ago all the jobs dried up,” Paul Bailey, the executive director of Springfield Partners for Community Action, told Lu Feorino of the Springfield Republican.  “Then you started seeing people coming in with shirts and ties” asking for assistance. “You have people who were formally middle class now asking for food.”

No one typically steps in to help community action agencies, partly because their constituencies are underresourced, not only in their own lives, but in terms of political power.  The story of community action agencies during the past 50 years is one of providing critically needed services to, for, and with low-income families while both fending off political and budgetary onslaughts and trying to mobilize their constituents into advocacy.

It isn’t an American politician who has inserted poverty into political discourse in recent times.  It is Pope Francis who has articulated a vigorous position on the Catholic Church’s commitment to tackling poverty through rejecting “the pervasive and insidious greed of unbridled capitalism”, as put by Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of moral theology at St. John’s University.  The debate of late concerning the Pope’s message is whether he has turned fully anti-capitalist or is only invoking a criticism of crony capitalism or perhaps the worst dimensions of free market capitalism.  Is the Pope trying to actually undo the capitalist system?  That might surprise and confound the pro-business wing of the Catholic Church.  We doubt he is trying to bring down capitalism.

The War on Poverty as carried out by community action agencies and other anti-poverty institutions from President Johnson’s “Great Society” was not predicated on a rejection of the American economic system, but to ensure that it worked for those at the bottom of the economic ladder instead of just those at the top.  But unlike many of the pundits arguing over Pope Francis’s take on poverty and capitalism poverty pro and con, the array of leaders of community action agencies aren’t dealing with poverty and its roots in the capitalist system as abstractions.  They are addressing poverty day by day, trying to deliver vital services despite many of the nation’s leaders who often think of poverty as a problem brought onto the poor by themselves and their own faulty decisions. The agencies’ programs sometimes look like laundry lists of federal resource commitments, but the reality is that, on the ground in low income communities, most community action agencies are doing what Pope Francis hopes that American Catholics and citizens of all faiths would do—to stand with and serve the poor.

And like MCCA, CASOKY, and Springfield Partners, community action agencies are not historic artifacts, but organizations trying their best to help meet the needs of lower income communities.  – Rick Cohen