By Eric Felten, RealClearInvestigations
November 23, 2022
Still prevalent in the Biden social-spending era, community action agencies date to the early 1960s, envisioned by the field marshals of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty as a way not just to identify and help the needy but to engage the poor in political activism.
“Governors in southern states were moving slow on civil rights,” Gary Gerstle, a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge, told RealClearInvestigations. The federal government determined it could do end-runs around recalcitrant bureaucracies and balky state institutions, Gerstle said, by putting money directly in the hands of activists at the local level.
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Policy radicals, including Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, were also convinced that it wasn’t enough to give money to the poor. They were influenced by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who argued in his 1961 treatise “The Culture of Poverty” that poverty is “a way of life, remarkably stable and persistent, passed down from generation to generation along family lines.”
“Community action was a form of social therapy,” historian and social theorist Michael B. Katz wrote in his 1989 book "The Undeserving Poor.” The idea was that “community participation overcame anomie and social disorganization by energizing previously apathetic and disaffected poor people to act on their own behalf.”
Tensions arose when the Office of Economic Opportunity became the main federal driver of the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s. The OEO insisted that the poor be better represented on the boards of community action agencies. But it turned out – as Lyndon Johnson’s budget director, Charles Schultze, wrote the president – that the OEO had alienated mayors by standing up political organizers. Though “some CAAs served established institutions, others fomented class and racial strife,” historian Allen J. Matusow wrote in his 1984 book “The Unraveling of America; A History of Liberalism in the 1960s.” Mayors were outraged that the federal government was funding “competing political organizations in their own backyards.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan excoriated the CAA approach in his book “Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding.” The cerebral Democratic politician, who also advised Republican President Richard Nixon, wrote that community action agencies were a “Recipe for Violence: Promise a lot; deliver a little. Lead people to believe they will be much better off but let there be no dramatic improvement.” What did anyone expect of a program that paid student radicals to use the poor “as a battering ram against the existing local political system”?
Nixon scrapped the OEO in 1974, but CAAs didn’t go away, and the problems that dogged the programs at the outset continue today.
In an illustration of entrenched abuses, the General Accounting Office at the request of the U.S. Senate in 1978 audited a sampling of community action agencies and found multiple instances of double-billing – and that fixed assets had a way of going missing. One agency alone was missing a 1968 Ford automobile, four lawnmowers, three cassette recorders, “eight miscellaneous items of photographic equipment,” a microfiche reader, a radio, a heater, a pencil sharpener, eleven typewriters, two slide screens, three calculators, one letter folding machine, chairs, tables, desks, three cameras, a photo enlarger, three tape recorders, a microphone, a stereo amplifier, a minivan, and “miscellaneous tools, saws, drills, and staple guns.”
A sweeping and ambitious strategy to attack poverty had been reduced to trying – and failing – to account for its federally funded staplers and pencil sharpeners.