Community Action Agencies: Problem from the Start in LBJ’s War on Poverty |


By Eric Felten, RealClearInvestigations
November 23, 2022

Still prevalent in the era of Biden’s social spending, community action agencies date back to the early 1960s, envisioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty marshals as a way not only to identify and to help the needy, but to engage the poor in political activism.

“Governors in southern states were making slow progress on civil rights,” Gary Gerstle, professor of American history at the University of Cambridge, told RealClearInvestigations. The federal government determined it could circumvent recalcitrant bureaucracies and recalcitrant state institutions, Gerstle said, by putting money directly into the hands of grassroots activists.

Main article: Chronic welfare waste through the federal-local pipeline

Radical policiesincluding Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, were also convinced that it was not enough to give money to the poor. They were influenced by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who supported in his 1961 treatise “The culture of poverty” that poverty is “a way of life, remarkably stable and persistent, transmitted from generation to generation along family lines”.

“Community action was a form of social therapy,” social historian and theorist Michael B. Katz wrote in his 1989 book. “The poor unworthy.” The idea was that “community participation overcame anomie and social disorganization by energizing the previously apathetic and disaffected poor to act on their own behalf.”

Tensions arose when the Office of Economic Opportunity became the main federal driver of poverty programs in the 1960s. The OPA pushed for better representation of the poor on the boards of government agencies community action. But it turned out — as Lyndon Johnson’s budget director Charles Schultze wrote to the president — that the OEO had alienated mayors by defending political organizers. Although “some CAAs served established institutions, others fomented class and racial conflict,” 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 funded “competing political organizations in their own backyard.”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan denounced the CAA approach in his book “Maximum misunderstanding possible.” 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 that they will be much better off, but that there is no dramatic improvement. What did anyone expect from a program that paid radical students to use the poor “as a battering ram against the existing local political system”?

Nixon dropped the OEO in 1974, but the CAAs have not gone away, and the problems that plagued the programs early continue today.

In an illustration of ingrained abuse, General Accounting at 1978 U.S. Senate request audited a sample of community action agencies and found multiple instances of double billing – and fixed assets tending to disappear. Only one agency lacked a 1968 Ford automobile, four lawn mowers, three cassette recorders, “eight miscellaneous cameras”, a microfiche reader, a radio, a heater, a pencil sharpener, eleven typewriters, two slide screens, three calculators, a letter-folding machine, chairs, tables, desks, three cameras, a photo enlarger, three tape recorders, a microphone, a stereo amplifier, a van and “various tools, saws , drills and staplers”.

A radical and ambitious strategy to fight poverty had been reduced to trying – and failing – to account for its federally funded staplers and pencil sharpeners.


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