“…It is, therefore, the policy of this Nation to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty … by opening to everyone the opportunity for education and training, the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.”
Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
This was the mandate and the mantle assumed by Sargent Shriver when, in 1965, he became director of the newly-created US Office of Economic Opportunity and architect of the nation’s “War on Poverty.” At that time, the national poverty rate was over 19 percent and income disparities between rich and poor were creating a social crisis.
Shriver seized the principles of empowerment embodied in the legislation that strove for “maximum feasible participation” by poor people themselves in the creation and operation of programs to combat poverty. Poor people had a right to one-third of the seats on every local community action board. The political establishment was in shock. Were they expected to support programs where people might be mobilized to vote against them? Sarge never buckled. He believed in community action.
That belief — and Shriver’s commitment and courage — will be validated once more when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame of Action for Boston Community Development on Nov. 2 as ABCD celebrates 50 years as the Boston-area antipoverty/community action organization.
The face of poverty has changed. It is now the face of children with 16.4 million children or 22 percent of children in America poor in 2010. Six million of them are under 6 and nearly half — 7.4 million — live in extreme poverty, defined as 50 percent of the poverty level. It is estimated that up to half a million children may be homeless in the United States.
It is the face of women with a third of all families headed by single mothers in poverty. Poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics far exceed the national average. Poverty is spreading across many groups, from underemployed workers and new immigrants to suburban families to discouraged workers who are giving up on the job market.
What can be done? Broad-based support is needed to move people in need to self-sufficiency. We can’t do it alone. Community action programs have always had strong bipartisan appeal. They get people working and paying taxes. They enable families to stay healthy and prepare children for school and life. They give young people work experience and inspire them to stay in school, go to college, and make a contribution to their communities. They welcome seniors back into society where they are valued as volunteers and the backbone of the community. They offer hope and opportunity. They rebuild lives and strengthen families.
Today’s community action programs measure outcomes to assess program success and influence planning and funding decisions. They use “one-stop shopping” to provide integrated services. If someone comes in for fuel assistance because he lost his job, he is referred to an onsite job counselor and asked if there are children in the family who might benefit from Head Start or the summer jobs program. A counselor inquires about health care coverage and other needed benefits.
Community action programs provide “asset development” programs to help people budget, manage their money, build assets and file for the Earned Income Tax Credit. They develop innovative job-training initiatives such as “Women in Construction” to get women off welfare, out of minimum-wage jobs and into solid-paying union positions.
At Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), we build partnerships with private sector companies, the Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and a host of “celebrities” who help us raise program funds. Every year ABCD holds a “Field of Dreams” fundraiser at Fenway Park and for two years now “Hoop Dreams” at the TD Garden, where companies pay to play on the hallowed turf or parquet floor where sports legends have made history.
Just as the nation rallied in the Kennedy era around the Peace Corps and Vista and the War on Poverty — now is the time for us to come together to give all Americans a foothold on the ladder of economic opportunity. We ask the public and the private sector and government, philanthropy, academia and all others to join us in that effort. It would be an investment with a huge return.