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War on Poverty

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War on Poverty

Stemming from a decision made in November 1963 to pursue a legislative agenda that economic advisers to President John F. Kennedy had planned, the War on Poverty consisted of a series of programs in the areas of health, education, and welfare that Congress passed in 1964 and 1965. When President Lyndon Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty" in his 1964 State of the Union address, he referred to federal aid to education and medical care for the elderly as important parts of that war. Although these measures passed in 1965, an omnibus act, prepared by a special task force of President Johnson's Council of Economic Advisers, became the legislative vehicle most closely associated with the War on Poverty. The House Education and Labor Committee began to consider this legislation, known as the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), in April 1964, and the measure passed Congress that August.

Run as part of the Executive Office of the president and directed by Sergeant Shriver, a brother-in-law of President Kennedy, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) served as the bureaucratic center for the war. Shriver's Office of Economic Opportunity contained assistant directors for each of the three most important components of the Economic Opportunity Act. The Job Corps, the first of these components, based on New Deal models such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, recruited 10,000 people by 30 June 1965 to receive vocational training in urban training centers, frequently located on abandoned military bases, or in smaller conservation camps managed by the Agriculture and Interior departments. The conservation camps stressed the value of discipline and physical labor in rural settings such as forests and recreational areas.

By the end of 1966, the Job Corps encountered serious opposition in Congress. Training inner-city youths for meaningful jobs turned out to be an expensive and difficult task. The fact that some Job Corps trainees committed crimes and that a riot erupted at one Job Corps training center added to the negative publicity. Nonetheless, the program survived as a public-private partnership run by the Department of Labor. Between 1966 and 2000, the program served more than 1.9 million disadvantaged young people.

The Community Action Program, the second of the important components of the Office of Economic Opportunity, functioned as a grant program from the federal government to local Community Action Agencies. These local agencies, either private or governmental organizations, had the assignment of mobilizing the resources of a given area and using them to plan and coordinate an attack on the causes of poverty. Part of their mission was to involve local residents in the decision making process. After urban riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in the summer of 1965, Congress began to question the efficacy of the Community Action Program. President Johnson also began to distance himself from the program, particularly after receiving complaints from local politicians that local Community Action Agencies were operating as centers to organize political movements in opposition to the incumbent mayors and city council members. In 1967, Representative Edith Green (D-Oregon) helped to save the Community Action Program by offering a successful amendment that placed all of the more than 1,000 community action agencies under the control of local or state governments.

The creators of the War on Poverty had hoped to create a flexible approach that would allow local communities to experiment with what worked best. Although such an approach failed to materialize, the Office of Economic Opportunity sponsored important research into the causes of poverty and the best means of alleviating it. The economists in the Division of Research, Planning and Evaluation viewed the poverty legislation as an avenue for policy evaluation and research. Hence, it seemed natural to them to test the notion of a guaranteed income that would be paid both to the working and the nonworking poor, to families headed by women, and to "intact" families that contained both a father and a mother living at home. In a remarkable development, the economists secured approval to conduct one of the largest social experiments in the nation's history, undertaken in the late 1960s and 1970s and known as the Negative Income Tax Experiments.

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